Treme – a Re-appraisal

I know it’s been a few years, but it’s time to crank up the old David Simon praise machine again.

I just finished watching season 3 of Treme, and I’ve got to say, this show deserves a little more acclaim than it’s received.  It’s not The Wire (nothing could be) but I imagine, if this show were being created by people who didn’t create The Wire, it would be held forth as just as groundbreaking, politically astute and captivating as The Wire always was.

A few things to say by way of comparison:

The Wire was a left-brained, intricately plotted (and plot-driven) intense political drama; Treme is a right-brained, divergent, and somehow still political drama.

The Wire is a deftly critical re-working of the conventions of the police procedural and the crime novel.  Treme, at least as far as I can figure, is really sui generis.  I’m sure there are other shows I don’t know about that contribute to the genre of this one, but it really feels more like it’s something brand new for which there aren’t rules.  Some of the original features include a willingness to show long segments where people are doing things like playing music or cooking, and complete lack of protagonist or protagonists (as far as I can tell).

It feels a little overblown to say The Wire is the old testament and Treme the gospels, but stepping back from the world-historical suggestions of that comparison, in form and feel, I think it’s a decent comparison.

David Simon’s efforts continue, also, to exploit the form of television in a way I’ve also just not seen elsewhere.  It seems so obvious and low-tech, but the deft use of visuals, dialogue and soundtrack as something like co-equal resources is just not done elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s an overstatement, but even as I reflect on the other things I’ve really liked  (i.e., Mad MenThe Sopranos, Deadwood, etc.) all of those are so dialogue-driven, it starts to feel like a novel, or a screenplay you’re just watching.  David Simon efforts feel like something that could not have been achieved in the form of a novel, like vital content would disappear (and I don’t just mean costumes).

What both The Wire and Treme (and Generation Kill and The Corner for that matter) all share is something that’s very difficult to articulate, beyond just saying there is a humanity to the product, the characters, the actors, and the experience of watching it, that I have found few if any other places on television.

Just to point to one moment: in a late season-three episode, Delman and his family watch the real-life documentary Trouble the Water while they’re sewing their Marti Gras Indian costumes, and a clip of a 911 phone call from Katrina is played.  None of the main characters say anything.  Their facial expressions barely even change.  But the level of empathy, disgust, shame and indignation at the moral state of the United Stated summoned up in the audience (at least this audience) was almost too much to bear.

[By the way – if you want to experience some real cognitive dissonance, watch two or three Treme episodes, like one where someone’s home is being torn down, and then switch over to HGTV – like “Love it or List it” or “Househunters.”  If you’re anything like me, you’ll whole-heartedly hate our country for at least 30 minutes].

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