The first season may only have been ten episodes long but the underrated Treme – the latest series from David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the men behind The Wire – packed more emotional and political punch than most other dramas do in their entire lifetime.
The show is named after the Tremé district of New Orleans, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. Today it remains a centre for both the city’s African-American community and its Créole cultural traditions.
What’s it all about?
This first season kicks off in the aftermath of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina, and follows the ordinary citizens of New Orleans as they seek to revive their city, their culture and their lives. It serves as a celebration of the city’s unique culture and an examination of the tragedy which the population even now struggles to fully recover from, as well as offering socio-political commentary that paints a picture of New Orleans beyond the commonly held tourist snapshot of Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street and When the Saints Go Marching In.
Music is at the heart of this series, from its brilliant, evocative intro to the regular placement of both traditional and modern jazz in the foreground of the action. Indeed, the music is almost a character in itself. And several of the main characters are also musicians. There is Antonie Batiste (Wendell Pierce), the proud trombonist forced into a jobbing existence just to make ends meet. Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) are French Quarter buskers who are at a crossroads as their personal and professional relationships continue to grow apart. And Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is an idealist itinerant who stumbles from job to job – DJ, hotel concierge, city council candidate and back to DJ again – rekindling his musical career in the process.
Other characters face their own personal struggles. Davis has an on-off relationship with struggling chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) who is forced to close her restaurant and tires of battling against a city which continues to throw setback after setback at her. Albert ‘Big Chief’ Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is a respected Mardi Gras Indian chief struggling to reopen the housing projects and bring his tribe back to the city. Antoine’s ex-wife LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) is a bar owner whose younger brother David was lost in police custody during the storm. She is aided by Toni Bernette (a fantastic performance by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), a civil rights lawyer who finds the authorities less than co-operative in her quest to locate David.
In many ways, though, the heart of the show is a character who was not in the original pilot and does not survive to the season’s end. Toni’s husband Creighton (John Goodman) is an English professor at Tulane who serves as the series’ voice of conscience. He rails against the systemic inadequacy of the city’s flood defences. He tries to instil a sense of passion for literature into his listless students. He resists his publisher’s attempts to convert his delayed novel from a historical piece into a commentary on Katrina. And he delivers a series of YouTube rants against all and sundry – most notably “F*** you, you f***ing f***s” – which turn him into a minor celebrity and an unofficial spokesperson for the city. (Indeed, the character was based on real-life New Orleans blogger Ashley Morris, with some material drawn directly from his writings.)
But none of these outlets is enough to assuage Creighton’s growing ennui, resulting in tragedy as he takes his own life at the end of the penultimate episode. The final instalment spends much of its time sinking slowly into despair, as Toni is forced to deal with the devastating news, LaDonna prepares for David’s funeral, Sonny and Annie’s relationship finally disintegrates (driving the former back to drugs), Antoine gambles away his earnings, Davis returns to the radio station which previously fired him, Janette leaves for New York and the police arrive seeking retribution on Albert for hitting a fellow officer.
However, a community officer steps in to save Albert a beating, Annie finds shelter with Davis and LaDonna reaches catharsis during the second-line parade after David’s funeral. Out of grief springs new hope, much as it has in the city itself.
A compelling drama, but one with little actual drama
Treme is very much a character-driven series, with a series of organic and loosely intertwined stories which do not attempt to force the pace or create artificial set-piece ‘moments’ to bring everyone together. The drama arises from the most mundane situations – a cowboy builder who will not repair a roof, a frustrated police force which covers up its errors and too easily resorts to brutality, a restauranteur desperately trying to keep her head above water -weaving a rich tapestry of ordinary people facing ordinary problems in an extraordinary situation which will not resolve itself neatly even after the rest of the nation has endured ‘Katrina fatigue’ and turned their back on them.
The series has, by all accounts, been extremely honest and accurate in its portrayal of life in New Orleans. It has reflected many of the issues the Crescent City has faced in the aftermath of the Katrina devastation, providing a rich overview of its traditions and recent history. As a viewer from the UK, this has been intriguing on many different levels.
However, its one glaring fault is an occasional tendency to become over-zealous in its political observations. Both George W Bush‘s administration and the city’s authorities take quite a battering, and while much of what is said is no doubt true, it comes across as being quite heavy-handed at times. And the wilful manner in which the writers eschew high drama in search of portraying the characters in plausible, everyday situations did lead to some episodes feeling awfully slow and sagging. But these are relatively minor quibbles.
Sadly, the series has become somewhat lost in the UK, being buried between Sky Atlantic’s hype surrounding Boardwalk Empire and subsequently Game of Thrones, and a less than friendly late Friday night slot. The opening episode attracted just 66,000 viewers – compared with 743,000 for Thrones and 438,000 for Boardwalk.
Nonetheless, for all its occasional politicking and deliberate mundaneness, this is a series with a genuine soul and a personality unlike any other. A hidden gem.
- Treme: season one, episode 10 – season finale (guardian.co.uk)
- Review: ‘Treme’ Paints a Compelling Portrait of New Orleans in Season 2 (tvsquad.com)
- Treme: a brilliant first season (gerryco23.wordpress.com)