For about as long as I've been writing about television, people have been urging, exhorting, and begging me to watch The Wire. And those who weren't making personal appeals were shouting the demand from the mountain top, calling The Wire the best series in the history of television, a medium-transcending work of fiction, a masterpiece so excellent that it could cure leprosy, heal the lame and sick, restore sight to the blind, and do just about anything else except win an Emmy. I've resisted these increasingly hysterical pleas for a variety of reasons. At first, because a cop show, no matter how excellent, just didn't appeal to me. Later, because the volume of available material had ballooned past the point where I could imagine easily catching up to the show. At this point, with the show so thoroughly built up, I find the thought of watching it a little daunting. Imagine being the only television reviewer to dislike The Wire, or think that it is just OK. So I decided to start with the less intimidating task of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer's follow-up series, Treme, which takes place in New Orleans in the winter following the devastation of hurricane Katrina. One of the risks of hearing constantly that a certain work is high art, however, is that you start thinking of it as something good for you, like homework or vegetables, and between those respectable associations with Simon's name and Treme's subject matter, I expected the show to be worthy and sobering, a gut-wrenching examination of the aftermath of the abandonment and destruction of a city and its inhabitants. I could not have been more wrong. It seems strange to say this about a series that not only starts from a post-Katrina premise but features, in the course of its ten-episode first season, the discovery of the decomposing corpse of a flood victim by his son and close friend, an innocent man jailed because of a clerical error who is lost in the Louisiana prison system for months following the chaos of the city's evacuation, several instances in which policemen viciously beat suspects, and the suicide of one of the show's main characters, but Treme is not only frequently funny, it is often a hell of a lot of fun.
Any expectations of Treme's sobriety are well and truly exploded by the show's wrongfooting opening credits, which intersperse images of New Orleans's happier past with photos of the destruction wrought by Katrina, and project the cast and crew's names against a background of wallpaper stained with mud and mold and photo albums wrecked by water, all set to the jaunty, toe-tapping tune of John Boutté's "Treme Song," whose lyrics tells us that "Down in the Treme/Just me and my baby/We're all going crazy/Just jamming and having fun." Not that the show's characters have much reason to jam and have fun. Just three months after the hurricane, they are sleeping on borrowed couches or in wrecked homes with no electricity or running water, toting up the costs of repairs and fighting with their insurance companies, waiting for slow-to-arrive or nonexistent Federal aid, and trying to get some relief or even attention from an overworked, understaffed, unappreciated bureaucracy and police force. Ladonna Williams (Khandi Alexander) is trying to keep the bar her father left her open in the absence of both customers and a roof, while shuttling back and forth to Baton Rouge, where her husband and children have settled. She's also looking for her brother Daymo, who disappeared during the evacuation of the city and hasn't been heard from since. Her lawyer, Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), is fighting the system, which insists that Daymo wasn't in custody during the storm despite photographs that prove otherwise. Toni's husband Creighton (John Goodman), an English professor at Tulane, gains notoriety for the invective-laden rants he posts on YouTube, in which he chastises the American government and public for their indifference to New Orleans's fate, and sinks into depression as he grows more certain that the city can never recover. Ladonna's ex-husband, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a once well-regarded trombone player, sees his already dimming prospects fade further in the reduced economy of post-Katrina New Orleans. Slacker and radio DJ Davis McAlaray (Steve Zahn) spends his days in perpetual, ineffectual outrage, and his energy on childish and fruitless acts of rebellion like stealing merchandise from a music store whose owners sell out after the storm, or telling national guardsmen to go back to Falluja. His sometimes-girlfriend, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), is a talented chef who can't find staff to work at her restaurant or the money to pay for supplies and repairs. Contractor Albert Lambreaux is trying to bring his house, his neighborhood, and the Mardi Gras Indian tribe of which he is chief, back to life through hard work and strength of will, but is dismayed to discover that undamaged Federal housing projects in his neighborhood have been shut down in an effort to change the city's racial makeup. His son, Delmond (Rob Brown), an up-and-coming musician, shuttles between New York and New Orleans, and tries to reconcile his conflicting feelings towards his father and his home town. Buskers Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) happily ply their trade in the French Quarter, but with the drug trade returning to the city Sonny is going back to old habits, while the talented but timid Annie lets professional opportunities pass her by in order to accommodate him.
Nevertheless, Treme spends as much time on these characters' joyous moments as it does on their sorrows. There are parties, parades, and most of all music--whole songs whose performance takes up several minutes of each episode. Davis persuades a dozen of his friends to join him in an exuberant recording session, in which he parodies Smiley Lewis's "Shame, Shame, Shame," transforming it into an anti-Bush diatribe, and later parlays his unexpected fame into a bogus run for city council. Janette receives a surprise visit from four superstar New York chefs and blows their socks off despite her limited stock and unreliable gas stove. Creighton's humorous parade crew mount a deliberately tasteless lampoon of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, at which he, Toni, and their daughter Sophie dress up as sperm. Playing in a reception band at the local airport, Antoine is embarrassed to meet more successful acquaintances as they retrieve their luggage, but they put down their bags and join in the music. Treme's first season begins and ends with jazz funerals, in which mourners dance their way to and from the graveyard to the sounds of a brass band, which seems like a perfect encapsulation of both the show and the image it tries to craft of New Orleans--a city in which pleasure and pain are inextricably linked, whose inhabitants eat, drink, and make merry in the face of utter ruin.
Outside of New Orleans, in which it has been rapturously received, Treme's critical reception has been on the lukewarm side, and though some of the disappointed reactions are clearly, and by their authors' own admission, rooted in the high expectations created by The Wire and in the hopes that Treme would more closely resemble it than it apparently does, another frequently-voiced complaint is that the series, which is so very in love with New Orleans, its history, and its culture, holds outsiders, including its own viewers, with disdain. Critics have argued that characters like the chauvinistic Creighton, whose YouTube rants frequently denigrate America's other great cities and the outsiders who fail to rate New Orleans above them, and Davis, whose favorite soap box topic is the city's increasing commercialization and gentrification as it courts the almighty tourist dollar, represent the show or even Simon's voice, which lambastes viewers for not being cool enough to know and appreciate the 'real' New Orleans. They've also noted how deliberately inaccessible the show is, dropping terms like Second Line parade, Mardi Gras Indians, Krewe du Vieux, and St. Joseph's Day into conversation without ever explaining the New Orleans traditions they represent, and placing their characters alongside real life musicians from the New Orleans scene whom Jazz aficionados will squee over while non-fans, like myself, scratch their heads. Even the show's name requires insider knowledge--it's pronounced treh-may, and is the shortened name of Faubourg Tremé, one of oldest neighborhoods in the city and a home to many artists and musicians.
I think that these complaints are missing the point. An ambivalence towards tourists, the money they bring and the demands they make, is surely not unique to New Orleans. Just about every city that has parlayed its unique history and culture into a tourism industry has had to struggle to maintain its character in the face of overwhelming popularity and the need to cater to the lowest common denominator. And though I agree that Treme is deliberately opaque when it comes to the city's traditions, where it really counts the show is entirely transparent. Do we really need to know why Albert dresses up in garishly-colored, hand-sewn and -beaded, vaguely Native American-inspired costumes to appreciate how important this tradition is to him, when his entire plotline revolves around his determination to put on a show for Mardi Gras, to which end he recruits his neighbors and his children, and even braves an unfriendly police force? Is it really necessary know what distinguishes a Second Line parade from any other parade? People playing music and dancing in the street strikes me as a fairly self-explanatory concept. We may not understand how these traditions came about and what their significance and nuances are, but the importance they hold for their participants, the pleasure the show's characters take in them, especially after the devastation wrought by Katrina, transcend all barriers of culture and geography.
Most importantly, though both Treme and its characters are unapologetically chauvinistic about New Orleans, I never felt shut out by this chauvinism. On the contrary, it seemed to me entirely inviting. For all their passionate defense of New Orleans, only some of Treme's characters are locals. Others, like Creighton, Janette, Sonny, and Annie, are outsiders who came to New Orleans, fell in love with it, and became its ardent proponents, and over the course of the season we see several minor characters undergo the same process. Taken as a whole, it strikes me that Treme works very hard to encourage the same infatuation in its viewers. Yes, there are scenes in which outsiders are lampooned or resented, but more often than not we're encouraged to stand by the main characters and join them in doing so. At the end of the season's third episode, Albert and the few friends he's managed to find hold an impromptu Indian send-off for their friend, whose body has been discovered in his wrecked house. As they sing and dance, a bus carrying tourists on a 'Katrina Tour' stops next to them and the driver asks them to explain their quaint customs to the passengers. Reviews of the series have singled out this scene as the epitome of Treme's viewer-unfriendliness, but again it strikes me as the exact opposite. I think the show expects us to think of ourselves as locals, standing alongside Albert--at whose side, after all, we found his friend's decomposing body, and observed his horror and sadness--resenting the voyeuristic tourists' callous incomprehension of the solemenity of the event they are interrupting, and chasing them off.
If anything, I'd be inclined to say that Treme is too welcoming to its viewers, too eager to win them over to New Orleans's side. The affinity that Treme encourages in its viewers is, after all, entirely illusory. I've been to New Orleans once, and though I had a wonderful time, I was exactly the sort of play-it-safe tourist the show and its characters disdain. It would be foolish to pretend that what I didn't learn about the city in the five days I spent there could be learned from Treme's ten episodes, or that being a fan of Treme makes me the sort of person who knows what it means to miss New Orleans. Especially when one considers that in its zeal to convert its viewers, Treme is often guilty of the same filing off of the city's rough edges that characters like Davis chastise the tourist industry for doing. The show is too well made, its premise is too dispiriting, and its events too often wrenching, for it to be called sentimental, but nevertheless there is a whiff of sentimentality in the way Treme's writers construct New Orleans. Through their eyes it comes to seem almost magical--a place where everybody knows your name, where people form instant connections, where any moment people around you might burst into song and dance, and where the sense of community is overpowering and omnipresent. The characters, even those who aren't connected, run into one another with a regularity that is surely unrealistic even in the months immediately following Katrina, which creates the false impression of New Orleans as not much more than a neighborhood. In scenes like the jazz funerals, the parades, and even quieter moments as when Antoine, desultorily waiting to see a doctor at the emergency room, starts singing and is soon joined by a dozen other patients, the writers suggest some ineffable New Orleans-ness, and then turn around and invite the audience to share it. Though Treme pours a great deal of scorn on New Orleans's institutions and what it describes as a culture of corruption and inefficiency governing them, only one character, Delmond, questions the New Orleans ethos of non-stop music and partying, asking his father's neighbor whether the symbolism of holding Mardi Gras parades after the hurricane isn't less important than the practicalities of rebuilding the city, and whether its inhabitants' time and energy wouldn't be better spend on the latter. Even he, however, is won over, caught up by the magic of the very celebration he had questioned, and by the end of the season he has joined his father's efforts to bring the Indians out for St. Joseph's Day. Now, maybe New Orleans really is just that magical, but it seems more likely to me that Treme's construction of it is another fantasy, a more sophisticated version of the tourist brochure. Come see the real, the authentic, unmediated, New Orleans, the show promises, but what it delivers is, in its own way, as manufactured as Bourbon Street.
Still, if Treme veers towards the sentimental in its worldbuilding, it is remarkably clear-eyed in its character work. Watching Treme has really brought into focus why I've come to hate the term 'character-driven' when it's applied to television shows. As used by the overwhelming majority of television writers, character-driven means a show whose writers have figured out, one or two seasons past the point where this would have done them any good, that they have plotted themselves into a corner, and are now desperately trying to pretend that the story was never the point of exercise. Treme is deliberately, and from its outset, a character-driven show--The Wire was frequently compared to a novel, and Treme too seems very much in the vein of the modern, multi-threaded, plotless novel of character exploration--and is such a great example of the form that it has reinvigorated my love for it. Like the best novelists, Treme's writers make such recognizable human beings out of their characters that it is impossible to dislike any of them, which is not to say that the cast is made up of angels. Some characters--Ladonna, Toni, Janette--are extremely positive, but others are selfish, immature, and self-destructive. Antoine is a shiftless charmer, who neglects his children with Ladonna and cheats on his current girlfriend and the mother of his new child. An accomplished bullshitter, he lies to appease the women in his life, to save cash (his dickering with cab drivers over his fare, which invariably goes unpaid, is one of the season's recurring jokes), and to stave off embarrassment. Davis is a buffoon, whose social consciousness is skin-deep and mostly an expression of his pride--he repeatedly talks himself out of jobs by being too proud to, for example, direct tourists to Bourbon street instead of more authentic New Orleans hangouts, or play his radio station's pledge drive compilations--and comes to seem less principled when we discover that he is mooching off his wealthy family. Creighton, who in some ways is the best version of the person Davis could grow up to be, is nevertheless too consumed by his anger and frustrated feelings of superiority--at his employers at Tulane, at the city administration, at the whole of America--to make any meaningful difference in the lives whose destruction who claims to abhor. Sonny is emotionally manipulative, and clearly holding Annie back from the career she could have if she weren't tied down to his lesser talent. (It has just occurred to me that all of the characters I singled out as positive are women and all of the negative characters are men. Even Annie only missed being on the good list because I found her sweetness overdone.)
Though the show's exploration of the characters' negative aspects sometimes falters--in an early episode, Albert viciously beats a young man he finds stripping copper out of houses under construction, enraged at this act of destruction in a city so desperately in need of rebuilding, and the show never fully examines this darker manifestation of his dedication to New Orleans's revival; Sonny's character arc should have worked well, as what show about musicians is complete without the character who is embittered by the realization that they don't have the talent to succeed, but he is too snide and superior to elicit any sympathy, and his and Annie's plotline is the weakest of the lot--in most cases it is remarkably subtle and winning. We get to know these people and to understand the reasons for their flaws. We see that Antoine is terrified of becoming the latest in a long line of minor, half-forgotten New Orleans musicians, and that his restlessness and compulsive lying are a mask for that fear, and probably a better, more generous choice than Sonny's bitterness. We see that Davis is fundamentally innocent, and capable of a childlike kindness and, more importantly, of learning from his mistakes. Over the course of the season, these characters do terrible and wonderful things--Antoine gives away an expensive trombone to his old music teacher who lost all his instruments in the flood, but at the end of the season, when the more successful members of his latest gig break out the poker chips, he can't stop himself from betting away his latest paycheck; Davis helps Annie and Janette when they're both at their lowest, but when his political parody gives him a platform from which to call attention to urgent issues, his thoughts are only for the money he's raking in, and he takes the first opportunity to cash out; Creighton is a loving husband and father, but he ends the season with an act of breathtaking, unforgivable selfishness--which, taken together, create entirely understandable, entirely lovable, people.
Beyond being people who are caught in difficult, perhaps impossible circumstance, Treme's characters are also, for the most part, artists, and their travails as they struggle to improve themselves and further their careers are as important to the series as post-Katrina reconstruction. The series wholeheartedly rejects the romantic cliché of the tormented artist starving in his garret, and the American Idol-inspired conception of art as a binary state, a choice between being a nobody or a star. In Treme, art is work. It's something that you do for love rather than stardom, but it is also how you pay the bills--"Play for that money, boys," Antoine tells the members of the funeral bands in the season's first and last episodes, and later in the season he takes embarrassing jobs at the airport or in a French Quarter strip club to make ends meet--and to do it professionally requires money and a head for business--Janette's restaurant is packed every night and her cooking is praised to high heaven, but she still can't stay afloat. And it's a communal act, with many of the season's scenes revolving around characters jamming together, or riffing off each other's music, or inspiring one another, or helping each other to find work and new opportunities. Art in Treme is both a lofty thing that the characters pursue past all reason, and a practical matter--a tension that is maintained in all of the characters just as the series's tension between comedy and tragedy is. As all of the characters understand, there are no promises: they might not be good enough, or they might be good enough and still fail, or they might succeed for a time and discover that that success is still not as rich as it might have been.
So the central question that Treme's first season asks is, can you stick it? Can you keep doing what you love despite the risks of disappointment and failure? Can you lose everything, and then pick up and start over again? Can you fight the indifference and cruelty of governing bodies so much greater and more powerful than you are? Can you stay in a ruined city and rebuild it with almost no help and no sympathy? Can you maintain your faith in that city, and in humanity in general, despite repeated proofs of its corruption? Some of Treme's characters--Janette, Delmond, Creighton--finally conclude that they can't, and leave New Orleans by one means or another, while others give qualified answers. Ladonna pursues her brother relentlessly, and rejects her husband's pleas that she sell her bar and move permanently to Baton Rouge where he and her children have settled comfortably. But when Daymo is found dead and Toni wants to pursue the circumstances of his death, Ladonna refuses, seeing no benefit in proving that Daymo died due to his jailers' abuse or indifference, and preferring to give herself and her family some peace. Between their character work and their work crafting New Orleans, the show's writers make the choice to quit as understandable as the choice to stick, and it is through those choices that Treme creates its most nuanced, most complicated portrait of the city, as a city that demands much and gives much, a city where great pleasure and great pain are constantly intermingled. "There are so many beautiful moments here," Davis tells Janette when trying to convince her to stay. "They're just moments. They're not a life." She replies. It's the choice between the two that is at Treme's heart.
(And yes, I promise that I will watch The Wire.)