After watching the second episode of Treme, I find I’m really enjoying the show, while assuming that the things I like best will probably be phased out as the show goes on. Treme is the logical successor to The Wire, with similar virtues (novelistic, epic approach to the portrayal of a city and its institutions) and flaws (David Simon’s political attitude sometimes seems to manifest itself as the attitude of a rich white guy who thinks the Little People are caught up in forces that only he, not they, can understand; it’s not quite limousine liberalism, but it’s pretty close at times). But whereas The Wire was basically a cop show and melodrama, using that as the foundation for its experiments, Treme is closer to being an actual drama, where many of the scenes and situations are not based in anything spectacular, violent or remote from everyday life. Instead a lot of the episodes are built around people making a living, or dealing with the regular details of non-violent life, or trying to find other people, or rebuilding. They are living in an extreme situation — a ravaged city — but most of them aren’t living extreme lives. And I think one of the points the show is making is that rubberneckers who come to New Orleans looking for something extreme, something melodramatic, are misunderstanding what’s going on. What I see in some of the better scenes is what I originally hoped Big Love would be: unexaggerated, genuine drama about people and lives we don’t usually see on television.
And while it’s true, as Mo Ryan says, that the show is more a collection of vignettes about New Orleans than a show that makes us attached to specific characters, I find that’s working for me so far. The unhurried, almost unstructured collection of scenes makes the show feel like non-melodramatic drama in a way that most television shows don’t nowadays; there are moments when you actually feel that people are interacting and talking about things, rather than being forced to convey plot and theme. (Maybe that’s a partial negation of David Mamet’s argument about what makes a scene “dramatic.” Yes, a scene has to have some kind of conflict and goal in it in order to have forward momentum, but a scene that doesn’t move the plot forward can be more genuinely dramatic than one that does.)
That said, the show has enough moments of violence, and plants the seeds for enough melodramatic plot points, that I can see it becoming broader and more plot-driven as it goes on. In fact, I’m almost willing bet that it will, as certain characters’ lives become more complicated, as their problems become bigger, as the crime elements come to the fore. If that happens, I think the show will be seen as a more coherent work, with more to say. But I feel, at the moment, like the show works better the slower, more relaxed and plotless it is. For now, it’s a show that is unapologetically a drama, rather than a cop/doctor/action/gangster/Western/whatever, or a “dramedy” or comedy-drama hybrid (though it does have its comic moments, it’s never going to be mistaken for a comedy). And that’s something you don’t see very often these days.
The show also has some connections, tonal and visual, to Frank’s Place, the greatest network show about New Orleans (though it never actually filmed there); the late David Mills mentioned that they gave Tim Reid a guest role in tribute. One of the few scenes from that show available online is one where a visiting director (Daniel Davis) tries to make the bartender Tiger speak with a thicker accent to provide the “authentic” New Orleans experience, which anticipates all the clueless outsider talk that goes on in Treme. Don’t expect a DVD release, though, since that show used tons of expensive music, starting with the theme song (whose title is also used as the title of the Treme pilot, though that’s not a Frank’s Place reference so much as a reference to the famous song itself).
Update: In comments, Justin Fowler makes some good points taking issue with my overly-dismissive comments on Simon’s attitude:
People who are caught up in the middle of things tend not to notice the larger workings that are going on around them and are largely out of their control. This is true for everyone, whether they’re pushers in Baltimore or politicians in Washington or middle-class folks in the suburbs. Forests, trees and all of that. So if you go and write something about people poorer than yourself who are caught up in complex circumstances, you’re always going to be susceptible to this criticism. Besides, it’s not as though Simon left *all* of his characters in the dark. Lester Freamon seemed to have a pretty good idea of what was going on.