Monday, August 13, 2012

Treme

So right before we went on vacation to Charleston, Amy and I finished watching Season 2 of Treme.  For those who don't know much about it, Treme is a TV series (from HBO) that follows a group of New Orleans residents as they struggle to put their lives back together and rebuild their community following the destruction and devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.  The show derives its title from the name of a neighborhood in New Orleans that is known for its lively feel and the large number of musicians who inhabit it.
Amy and I have really been enjoying the show.  It was produced by Eric Overmeyer (Law & Order, Homicide) and David Simon (Homicide, The Wire, Generation Kill).
The show features a truly ensemble cast (it would be hard to say exactly who the central character of the show might be), with storylines that follow musicians, chefs, lawyers, college professors, cops, DJs, politicans, and others as they struggle to find their footing in a dysfunctional city that's trying to put itself back together in the wake of a massive catastrophe. 
I have to admit that, on a personal level, one reason that I love the show is because of the music performances that it features and the focus on music that occurs in the storylines.  Very few shows have not only invested themselves in such a clear love of music (the sound quality is typically really strong- even when shooting in a crowded club), but also featured its creation and performance as such a central component of the plot.  Treme constantly reminds viewers that music is an absolutely vital part of not only the cultural heritage of New Orleans, but also of its identity as a modern city.  And the focus on musicians goes far beyond simply romanticizing their work.  It also reflects the day to day trials and tribulations of being a working musician in a city that's chock full of talented performers, but considerably less populated in terms of lucrative recording contracts.
Still, Treme does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the music venues, the enthusiasm of the crowds, and the sound of the acts (and there's been a whole laundry list of famous musicians featured, from The Subdudes to Dr. John to Kermit Ruffins to Trombone Shorty and many, many others).  All in all, the audience gets a pretty good feel for why a person might struggle and sacrifice for love of music in a town like New Orleans.

Treme has received a generally favorable audience reception, although not, perhaps, an overwhelmingly positive one.  Part of this, I believe, is due to unfair (and possibly inappropriate?) comparisons to The Wire.  The Wire, another one of David Simons' creations, was a five season sprawling epic about Baltimore's organized crime, police, and the social and governmental systems that touch on both.  Without a doubt, The Wire was a truly great show, but it was something very different from Treme.  The Wire was a show, perhaps not of simple good versus evil (the characters in Simons shows are, thankfully, almost never strictly good or bad), but still it was largely a show where outright conflict played a central role.  Cops fought drug dealers.  Politicans fought one another in elections.  Police officers battled one another through the internal politics of the department.
I'm not saying that The Wire was without nuance, but all of this obvious conflict translated into a dramatic tension that was, in my opinion, often easier to grasp than some of the stuff that's going on in Treme.
On Treme, many of the conflicts tend to be more internal.  Characters struggle with depression and a loss of hope and a need to preserve the cultural traditions of a city that they intimately know and love.  The dramatic tension on Treme doesn't really arise from watching to see if one character will triumph over another, but, instead, in waiting to see if the City of New Orleans and its citizens can rise again in the face of devastating loss.  Business owners struggle to make a living in a city with a damaged infrastructure, residents struggle to repair their homes while fighting the urge to abandon their city, musicians struggle to find paying gigs in the midst of a bruised tourism industry, and everyone struggles to keep Mardi Gras and other traditions alive in a city that's still reeling from the storm.

I also really find something very impressive in the sense of place that Treme brings to its audience.  Treme captures the sights, sounds, and feel of New Orleans in a way that very few shows have managed to pull off.  The first season of the show depicted many of the more familiar places in the city, some of them quickly recognizable to former tourists, but it feels like the show has expanded into other neighborhoods and locations by season 2.  I really think that Treme manages to capture the vitality and spirit of New Orleans without simply becoming an advertising promo for the city's visitor's convention and visitor's bureau.  The lively, life affirming culture of the people who live in New Orleans is prominently featured.  Even the funerals have dancing and music, the food is amazing, and the city has raised partying to an art form.  Also, as far as American cities go, New Orleans is an old place, and the many traditions that have developed within it constantly remind viewers of the city's unique flavor (e.g., king cake, second lines, mardi gras parade krewes, etc., etc.).
But against this are set the realities of life in New Orleans, some of which have been caused by the destruction of the hurricane, and some of which were already present, but have been subsequently exacerbated by the storm.
Violent crime is a terrible problem in the New Orleans.  Although most of the areas frequented by tourists remain heavily patrolled and relatively safe, crime runs rampant in many other parts of the city, and New Orleans continues to have the highest murder rate, per capita, of any city in the country.  Treme doesn't let you forget this.  Bars get shot up, shots ring out during second line parades, and the show's characters suffer the effects of violent crime.
Police and political corruption have run rampant, both before and after the storm.  The show features investigations into numerous examples of police misconduct and depicts a culture of apathy and misconduct within the police force.  Apparently the show mirrors reality.  Earlier this summer the U.S. justice department announced a major intervention plan in New Orleans meant to overhaul the operations of its police department, weed out corruption and return a stronger emphasis to law enforcement.  Needless to say, such action on the part of the federal government is uncommon and only arises in response to emergency situations.  Treme reminds us that there are good cops in New Orleans who are trying to do their jobs and help the city get back on its feet, but the dysfunction in the New Orleans police department is real.
Similarly, Treme has focused on political corruption in New Orleans politics, particularly as it has arisen within rebuilding efforts (one might assume that the corrupt politicians have been there the whole time- the rebuilding simply presents a new opportunity).  Once again, Simon and crew haven't strayed far from reality in making Treme.  As recently as last month a city council member in New Orleans pled guilty to federal corruption charges after funneling federal rebuilding funds into his own nonprofit organization (and he's definitely not the first).
This is what David Simon does very, very well.  As a former reporter, he excels at studying news stories and trends and understanding the individual human dramas that lie behind them.  He gets the feel of a place and then introduces us to a number of characters, hopefully ones that we can build emotional connections with, and makes us understand and connect with a city in a way that runs much deeper than simply scanning daily headlines.  The Wire did a great job of depicting Baltimore in the first decade of our new century, and now Treme is doing the same thing with New Orleans.
At any rate, I think Treme is a great show.  It's different than The Wire, but in its own way, I think no less compelling.
Check it out.  I guess it's not for everyone, but if you give it a couple of episodes to grow on you, I think there are a lot of people out there who won't be sorry about having given it a chance.

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