David Simon’s season-ending Treme interview with Alan Sepinwall contains at least one observation I really like, since I’ve been making the same point myself (and we all know that a statement only matters when we agree with it). This is that even though a lot of people find that there’s not enough plot, not enough things happening in the show, it’s not necessarily the case. What is true is that the show doesn’t have a lot of melodramatic high points, and we’re so used to TV drama being melodramatic that just plain ordinary drama may play as un-dramatic.
It’s not that it lacks plot. What it lacks is the life and death stakes of the television trope. If you tell me that somebody is going to lose the love of her life, which is a restaurant, and it’s going to happen in real time, and we’re going to see them make a choice to abandon their city – that’s an awful lot that’s happened to a character. On the other hand, are you measuring it by asking, “Did I see a gun put to this person’s head? Did I see them raped? Did I see them wreck their car drunkenly and end up in the hospital? Were they put on trial for their life? Were they sent into an ER and the doctors hovered over them making life and death decisions? Were they hurtled into the West Wing where they had to consult on a decision that would mean the lives and deaths of thousands?” Those are the standard tropes of a standard television drama. I’m uninterested in telling a story that is a lie, and those are not the stakes of post-Katrina New Orleans, and I’m interested in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Treme also has a lot of things that aren’t necessarily plot-related but contribute to the atmosphere or themes of the show — most obviously, the musical performances. (Which, as Simon notes, aren’t actually full-length performances; they’re just longer than they would normally be in a TV show, where the normal practice is to have a few seconds of performance and then cut away.) This, again, is not really un-dramatic; it’s like one of those old movies where a song performance has nothing to do with the plot, per se, but gives the film more of a distinctive rhythm, and creates the illusion that it’s not just a story, that the characters have time to relax and do non-plot-related things just like real people do. On Treme it’s even more essential to have music because the actual story material is based on the music and musicians, but it’s a similar idea, one that is a refreshing contrast to the kinds of things that are taught in screenwriting classes (where every second of screen time is supposed to be tied to the plot).
Simon also claims, as he often does, that everything that happens on the show can only be judged in retrospect, once we see the season finale and realize it was all part of his master plan. I always find this an attempt to minimize the accidental, haphazard nature of filmmaking (it’s essential to minimize these things if you’re going to argue that a TV series is just like a novel, but it’s not). But I understand his frustration with people who see an episode and can’t stop talking about where it might be leading. An episode is an episode, and a season is a season, but a lot of TV discussion — inevitably — is about neither: instead it’s about evaluating an episode in the context of a unit (the season) that doesn’t fully exist yet.