If you aren’t interested in using TV as a way to challenge yourself and/or you don’t know where to look for stimulating programs then the boob tube could easily appear to be just that. It is hard, amongst the Kardashians and all those dancing stars, to find a show that doesn’t treat you like a complete idiot. That is what makes David Simon such a god to so many people, as his shows (most notably The Wire and Generation Kill) are overpowering dissertations on contemporary America that will leave most anybody feeling stupid and inadequate.
The Wire, which ran for five seasons on HBO, appeared on the surface to be any old hour long cop drama but in reality was a masterful examination of how one American city (Baltimore) truly operates. All corners are covered; from the docks, to the local government, to the schools, to the newspaper. Mainly because of that show Simon enters Treme more or less critic proof. It too also focuses on an American city, in this case New Orleans; it's jazz scene and what was going on there in the months following Hurricane Katrina.
As with The Wire this show is painted on an enormous canvas. As many as ten different plot threads are showcased in the first few episodes, some of which will intersect while others will not. Antoine (Wendell Pierce) is a trumpeter who is struggling to make ends meet while also actively avoiding his out of town children. Elsewhere, Davis (Steve Zahn), a crusading music purist/disc jockey is engaging in shenanigans all around town such as breaking into the recently shuttered Tower Records to retrieve his CDs and trying to network with Elvis Costello. He’s also bedding Janette (Kim Dickens) a whiny restaurateur who all too often lets her materialism bleed on through. That’s not to say that she is some sort of snooty princess, to the contrary she’s also waging a war against history trying to keep her business afloat while battling the fact that her staff and customer base have been evacuated out of town.
Also of interest is the left wing activist couple, played by John Goodman and Melissa Leo. He’s the brute of the family, using anger as a weapon and screaming from any rooftop he can find that the flooding of New Orleans was solely the fault of the US government. Leo, a thousand times softer here than she was in Frozen River, plays Toni a lawyer who spends her time helping people find family members lost during the storm.
What Simon has always done best, and what he perfected here, is creating a version of reality that is not only true to life in an unprecedented fashion but is also intriguing and immensely watchable. All of his shows have had an understanding of rhythm and subtlety and irony, but with Treme he also aims to show the ways in which music affects our daily lives. To these characters music is their soundtrack, their careers, their entertainment, their passion and their salvation. And those feelings don’t always have to be expressed in words as emotions here can be conveyed in quiet, unspoken ways (a glance, a nod, a contortion) which make them all the more palpable.
There have been a few murmurs of discontent from the critics (no actual grievances, please) that perhaps the pacing is too slow and that not all that much goes on. And to a degree this is true especially if they were expecting the same rowdiness that The Wire supplied. When compared to that show it becomes obvious that the unifying power of music is never going to be as exciting as the divisive nature of the drug trade. The plot does sometimes stop moving but that’s OK because it does that in real life too. Instead those critics should look at how beautifully and fully realized the New Orleans portrayed here is. It is also romantic and utterly appealing. There isn’t a corporate logo to be found and the characters seem to be free to live their life and are not ruled by the fascism of the market. On the downside everybody (except Elvis Costello) seems to be impoverished. Treme is still young but it is overflowing with potential, where it will go from here is anybody’s guess but tuning in every week to find out is an experience we recommend you check out for yourself.