Hurricane Katrina was a devastating, depressing debacle whose ramifications are still felt today. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed. You'd think “Treme,” a new HBO series that takes place in New Orleans in the months after Katrina, would be a downer, that viewers would be treated to a humbling, depressing television experience. You'd be wrong. “Treme,” through two episodes, is among the most uplifting TV series I've ever seen.
This is one reason why “Treme” has the potential to be an all-time great show, to place among the best in the modern era and, dare I say it, possibly surpass its predecessor, “The Wire,” in terms of quality.
David Simon is the brains behind both “Treme” and “The Wire,” and there is no human more capable of telling the story of Katrina and its aftermath than he is. Obviously, any hyperbolic claims concerning “Treme's” legacy are premature. Rarely is a TV series fully formed at the start, and a stellar pilot isn't necessarily a recipe for sustained greatness or longevity. And, yet, is there any person alive who inspires confidence in a viewership like Simon?
With “The Wire,” Simon whacked the grass hut of police procedurals down with a razor-blade-spiked bamboo rod. “The Wire” changed what we all thought television could be. The show painted a grim but stirring picture of Baltimore, its denizens who strived to hammer out a living and the man-made institutions that let them down. It gave its audience the benefit of the doubt, throwing us right into the action without the crutch of expositional dialogue or blatantly plot-clarifying scenes.
Simon created an intricate account of a dying city over five seasons, not just showing the effects, but the causes too. Never have civic machinations been documented in such a complete, heart-wrenching manner.
The show was genius. One-for-one on HBO. I bet Simon goes two-for-two.
So Simon has now gone from Baltimore to New Orleans. There has been a reticence among critics to actively compare “The Wire” to “Treme,” which is understandable. “The Wire” is considered by many to be the medium's crowning achievement, and you don't want to saddle a new series with impossible expectations.
But come on, people. To claim that “The Wire” and “Treme” are inherently dissimilar (a regular refrain among critics) is foolish at best, self-serving at worst. The two shows are very much alike, from the story-telling mechanisms (wide cast of characters, novelistic approach) to the overarching goal (painting an accurate portrait of a city). Let's not be scared to hold up Simon's newest creation to his past glory.
The reason comparing the two is important is that “Treme” immediately exudes greater potential than “The Wire.” “Treme,” simply, has more going for it as a concept. No offense to Baltimore, but New Orleans is the more intriguing city with its tradition, history and oddness. For instance, the opening scene of “Treme's” pilot reenacts the first second-line parade after Katrina and, without much dialogue, the viewer is already emotionally invested. The brass band represents the resiliency of the people, the pride they feel in their city. And the music is incredible.
Oh, God, the music. If there is one through line in “Treme,” one thing that ties the room together, it's the constant deployment of local New Orleans music. Some viewers may balk at this aspect, but still, I suspect that even the most tone deaf will fall in love with the diverse music. Scenes are built around performances, and those performances are allowed to breathe, with full songs played in all their wonder.
A significant number of the major characters are musicians, and real-life musicians (Elvis Costello and the revelatory Kermit Ruffins, to name two) feature heavily in each episode. For these characters who have suffered through a shameful, pride-crushing ordeal, music is the ultimate release and it makes for an emotional, almost transcendent, viewing experience.
Again, it's far too early to predict “Treme's” future (though HBO has already renewed the series for a second season), but some minor issues could impede its growth. There are questions about the lack of a clear narrative drive.
“The Wire” had the drug war and its obvious battle lines therein. “Treme” has complex characters, but no greater conflict to hone in on (yet). It has no out-and-out antagonists (besides FEMA, I suppose), and it's difficult to discern when and how Simon and crew will ratchet up the conflict. The series may turn out to be more of a documentary, slice-of-life type of show. That's fine, but it significantly lowers “Treme's” dramatic ceiling.
With all this in mind, however, you can't help but have faith in David Simon. His pedigree speaks for itself. Why couldn't he top “The Wire” with “Treme”? It's not like he hit lightning in a bottle with the former show.
The characters on “Treme” display not only resilience in the face of their broken city, but a startling amount of optimism. Take Albert Lambreaux, who returns to the city with only a toolbox. His family and neighbors think he's crazy, and maybe he is. But he believes in rebuilding, and he sets about doing his part one water-saturated ceiling fan, one run-down bar at a time.
In the face of this kind of optimism, I feel comfortable believing in “Treme's” greatness. Maybe it won't become the greatest TV series of all time, but if Albert can believe in a city that's seen as much death and destruction as New Orleans, the least I can do is believe in the TV show.
Oscar Dahl is a writer who lives in Seattle.