Treme, which comes back for a second season tonight, is a bit of an odd fit with the current HBO, even with the “classic” early ’00s HBO that made David Simon one of its star producers. I love watching it; it’s a great-looking show, excellent acting, and there are always some really good scenes (along with some that don’t quite work so well, but when a show is so loosely constructed, that’s to be accepted). But it’s not the sort of show where you feel compelled to rush back every week to find out what will happen, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It expects you to know who the characters are; it doles out its storylines in little pieces, so the impact is cumulative. But while its stories are often quite dark, it’s not monolithically dark in tone, and it’s not a high-intensity show. It’s a place where you drop in and watch some people doing some stuff, and slowly notice that there’s some sort of theme or storyline taking shape.
The basic unit of scene construction for Treme is the short scene that’s left unresolved. This is a common HBO technique, setting it apart from the network drama, where there’s always pressure to make each scene point directly forward to another one. You know what I mean: scenes will either end with finding a clue or some kind of twist in the characters’ relationship, which keeps us waiting for the next scene where these threads will be picked up. On HBO, a scene can just present a situation and we accept that it will eventually lead somewhere.
Treme takes it farther than most HBO shows, because the scenes are often very short – too short to play as complete dramatic units in themselves, though there are exceptions – and often end on a question or some other unresolved note. (There are exceptions, like a longish scene where Delmond, the expat musician, finds himself listening angrily to snobby New Yorkers saying the same things about New Orleans that he himself secretly believes.) Most of the scenes in the season premiere set out who the characters are, what they want, where they stand at this particular point in time, but not a whole lot happens and not a whole lot changes.
One could say that a lot of the show is exposition without payoff, though I think a better way of putting it would be that it’s exposition without the promise of payoff. A lot of stuff actually happened last season, but watching the scenes leading up to the big moments, it doesn’t always feel like something is going to happen. Most dramas have an intense mood that promises us that threats are imminent: this is why cops, doctors, cowboys are such popular TV heroes, because they live in a world where we know something bad is always on the verge of happening.
Treme certainly could create that atmosphere if it wanted. It doesn’t want to, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the show. It’s a study of a damaged city, a social-problem piece, but it’s also trying to show us that New Orleans is better and less violent and dangerous than we might be inclined to think, since the media has been stereotyping the place as a hell-hole from the moment the storm hit. (The season premiere addresses this with a one-sided phone conversation with a New York Times reporter, who is apparently trying to get a story that portrays the town as a cauldron of senseless violence.) For the purpose of helping the real city, as well as the purpose of going against the stereotypes, it has always tried to show us that New Orleans is still a great town with the same mix of joy and pain that any great town has. So it’s consciously chosen not to have the same intensity and overall darkness that you get with other cities on other shows or films – it’s not a downbeat portrayal of New Orleans like The Killing is a downbeat portrayal of Copenhagen and/or Seattle.
I like the mix of tones, though as I said it does mean that every episode will contain some scenes one doesn’t like side-by-side with the stuff one does like (lots of people complained about Steve Zahn’s character last year and this year doesn’t look like it’ll be much different; his stories, like most characters’, are essentially his own, so if you don’t like him you don’t like most of his scenes). And I like the way the loose construction and ambiguous scene endings can make you wonder exactly what it’s trying to say. In the season premiere, a new regular, a Texas land developer (Jon Seda) comes to New Orleans ready to make some money off the reconstruction of the city, and the basic contours of this story are pretty well set – the destruction of New Orleans was a gift to business opportunists as well as rich people trying to remake the city in their own image. But the episode allows a local rich guy to make his case for changing the city, without making him out to be completely evil, and in a series of scenes showing Seda enjoying New Orleans (in a tourist-y kind of way) it doesn’t immediately tip its hand about what we’re supposed to think of him. We may learn more later, but for the moment they’re just scenes with people doing stuff.
The show contains a lot of scenes whose function in the plot is not instantly clear, or even clear at all, and it doesn’t offer a pervasive atmosphere that reassures us that everything is eventually going to pay off. Some of it will, but some of it may not. It’s good to see a show be that loose and let moments play. But it means that it’s not always the kind of show that makes you wonder where it’s going and where this particular scene will lead. A lot will happen before the season is over, but when a show tries to be loose and leisurely, it doesn’t tease us as much with the feeling that something is inexorably coming.
Also, tonight’s episode title and featured song (sung in the episode and over the closing credits) is “Accentuate the Positive.” That’s a good thing, because it will hopefully erase the memory of the last time that song was performed on a major television series:
I said I like it when a show lets moments play, but there are some moments that just would be better off replaced by violence and plot.