Having spent the best part of two decades creating cop shows - albeit two of the best ever (Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire) - David Simon seems to have found himself with something close to a carte blanche as to what to make next. Avoiding self-indulgence, he used this situation to tackle some of America’s most traumatic and controversial moments of recent years. Thus Generation Kill (2008) and Treme (2010-11) depict the ‘War on Terror’ and Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath respectively. These intelligent realistic dramas are shows that needed a bankable name behind them, and in television (quality television at least) the writer/creator is the name above the title - the star. Of course the actors must be outstanding, and Simon provides us with a great ensemble cast including New Orleans natives John Goodman and Wendell Pierce (The Wire‘s Bunk) and many non-professional local actors such as Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who was so memorable in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. But it was the guaranteed quality of Simon’s writing team that got these projects green-lighted.
Treme is an area in New Orleans right by the French Quarter. Largely populated by African-Americans, it is undoubtedly of great cultural importance, containing Congo Square, the birth-place of that great American art form, jazz. As my pre-Katrina tourist guide claims, ‘there aren’t many reasons to wander into the Treme’, and certainly not after dark, but compared to The Wire‘s Baltimore housing projects the Treme depicted here is something short of a fallen Utopia. Despite the mould, crumbling houses and missing neighbours the sense of community is a thing to behold. And of course, the great authentic New Orleans music is everywhere - played by locals for the locals away from the Bourbon Street tourist traps and ‘titty-bars’.
The series opens with the first ‘second line’ (marching brass band) parade since the storm. It might not be Mardi Gras but these smaller parades are an almost weekly event in New Orleans. It illustrates how important the music is to the people, who randomly join in the parade as it marches to its conclusion at a local bar. At a time when many Americans were asking whether the city was even worth rebuilding, this depiction shows why people love New Orleans and why it is worth preserving. It certainly appears to be a city unlike any other in America - there are still the highways cutting through the city centre, and I’m sure fast food chains (although we don’t see them), but even the failing Tower Records store has an arrangement with local musicians. It is also a city with a real sense of its own cuisine beyond a differently shaped pizza or local brand of frankfurter.
Where The Wire attempted to contextualise the police procedural - with each season focusing on schools, city politics, the press, etc. - Treme goes even further, to the point where the background takes the lead. This loosely connected bunch of characters represent the different aspects of New Orleans culture - a jazz trombonist (Pierce), a Creole/Cajun-food chef (Kim Dickens), a writer and lecturer (Goodman), a stoner DJ (Steve Zahn) and Clarke Peters (The Wire‘s Lester Freamon) as the chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. Much of the culture is merely shown with little direct explanation - for instance, who are the people organising and paying for the ‘second line parade’? And the curious world of the Mardi Gras Indians - an African-American subculture that involves dressing up in the most elaborate native American costumes - is left in part a mystery.
One of the great things about HBO television shows has been the space allowed for both plot and character development that the 90-minute cinema release can never hope to equal, and this is certainly the case here. The plots largely focus on rebuilding and attempts to return to some pre-Katrina normality - cleaning up homes, repairing roofs, trying to find a job or a gig, saving a business. There is no overall story arc to encompass these fragments - each story works its own way towards its own conclusion.
There is also room for some blatant political comments with John Goodman’s character’s interviews and YouTube rants. He explains how the flood was caused by negligent work and poor maintenance of the levees (‘this is a man-made catastrophe, not a natural disaster’). George W. Bush’s decision to view the disaster from the window of Airforce 1 flying overhead is ridiculed in Zahn’s musical satire (‘Shame on you Dubya’). The frustration with the federal government’s response can be seen everywhere - ‘Buy us back Chirac,’ asks one carnival float of French-costumed New Orleanians.
But taking up even more screen time is the music. The plot takes a back seat while we watch yet another great musical performance. From traditional to modern jazz from blues to rhythm and blues - real musicians such as The Rebirth Brass Band, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (who recreate their post-Katrina New Orleans recording sessions), Dr John and Steve Earl all have cameos. As an English reporter suggests, New Orleans music may have lost some of its international importance, but locally it is still the beating heart of the city.
The series has flaws but pretty minor ones. The dialogue can be difficult to follow - peppered with New Orleans accents, jazz musician in-jokes and obscure references - but at least the characters are not speaking in the military acronyms of Generation Kill. At times the writing is too good: there are too many good lines, too many profound statements for it to be truly realistic and authentic. And there seems to be just too much integrity in the main characters. But the meandering pace is perfectly suited to the subject matter, and the moments of high emotion and drama are beautifully handled with great understatement.
Free from the need to sneak good writing into a cop show formula (Homicide), Simon delivers another of his epic Tolstoyan depictions of intensely personal stories and their socio-economic and cultural milieu. The Wire is widely recognised as one of the all-time great TV shows and with a few more seasons at this standard Treme could equal this status - as long as you like jazz.