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TV Waffle - Treme

David Simon is the Radiohead of American Television. 'Homicide: Life on the Streets' and 'The Corner' being serviceable quality shows that showed the promise and set the template for the big epic stadium album. So that makes 'The Wire' his 'OK Computer'. Awash with superlatives, deeply intelligent, the work of a master at the top of his game. Don't worry, I will stop torturing this analogy in a moment. Like Radiohead, Simon is very much a critics' darling, his impact on the medium far bigger than the viewing figures his shows receive.
So what comes next? Radiohead never quite maintained that one exultant moment of glory, that moment when critics and public alike click into agreement, becoming gradually more and more introspective until they exist only for their hardcore fans. So if 'Generation Kill' was Simon's 'Kid A', does 'Treme' mark the beginning of the end, reworking his key themes, developing and refining that style but no longer connecting with the audience the same way again?
Shown with little fanfare in the UK, (in truth a post Hurricane Katrina show, about government machinations and Jazz & Blues was always going to be a niche market) this may just be David Simon's masterpiece. A long, woozy, sprawling, multi-narrative, multi-character explosion of color, music and soul. Think Robert Altman's 'Nashville' seen through the eyes of a jaded but optimistic newsroom journalist.
It's a big cast. Melissa Leo, David Morse, John Goodman and Steve Zahn are probably the most well known along with Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters from 'The Wire'. Like most of Simon's oeuvre it drops you straight into it's environment. Characters are unexplained, patois is not subtitled. The audience are expected to keep up. The rhythms of the language soon become intelligible and characters become fully fleshed out as the show develops. All you need to know at the start is that Treme is a neighbourhood in New Orleans and the show begins three months after Hurricane Katrina, Following a disparate group of people as they attempt to rebuild their lives following the disaster.
Although more geographically focused than 'The Wire', it has a sprawling quality, covering the music and food of New Orleans as well as political corruption and the covering up of a murder by the police during the hurricane. The focus on food and music has been criticized in some quarters. Music does take up a large proportion of the show and some of the guest stars in the first season definitely feel shoehorned in There's a few too many of the “oh look there's Elvis Costello” type cameos. One of the main sub-plots throughout the show regards Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a chef whose restaurant has been decimated by the flood and who eventually finds herself working in New York. As some of the shows are written by chef, food writer and presenter Anthony Bourdain, these vignettes have an intimacy and accuracy which show the meticulous care and precision that goes into making fine food as well as music. If the canvas of 'Treme' is New Orleans then music and food are the medium with which the creators construct their picture.
Each season of 'Treme' revolves around Carnival so if there is a main character focus then it would be on honorary Brit and 'The Wire' star Clarke Peters as Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian chief. Builder, Political Activist, demon sequin sewer and adorned with some of the most flamboyant attire outside of a drag queen beauty contest, Big Chief is a hard character to like at first, harsh and unyielding, but as the show progresses so he becomes more interesting and complex. The Mardi Gras Indian subculture was completely unknown to this viewer and is both fascinating, complex, and camp as Christmas.
John Goodman plays an English Professor married to Melissa Leo's Civil Rights Lawyer who literally jumps ship after the first season. Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste a trombonist who is essentially Bunk with a horn and skirts into cliché as a philandering booze hound muso but by season three has transformed into a music teacher who, if not reformed completely, has become something deeper and more intriguing.
It's not all good. Davis McAlary, as played by Steve Zahn, is one of the less likable characters who runs the gamut of annoying to punch-in-the-face annoying; a wannabe music impresario from a wealthy background who has yet to grow up and has a self righteous streak a mile long. One does feel that this level of irritating is deliberate on the writers' part, in which case it has been a success, although it tries the audience's endurance for trust fund pseuds.
The most surprising character in the show is Sonny, a feckless street musician from Holland on a downward heroin spiral. A one note pretty boy who looks like a glowing advertisement for Class A drug use by the time he is cleaned up and working for a Vietnamese Fisherman, whose daughter, Linh, Sonny starts to show an interest in. The relationship between Sonny and the fisherman is one of the sweetest parts of the show. There is a wonderful moment of grace when Sonny relapses and turns up at Linh's parents' house in which he breaks down and is held by her father which is a truly great moment of subtle television, beautifully filmed.
There are numerous other characters and storylines. Melissa Leo's campaigning Civil Rights lawyer gradually unraveling a murder by police officers that opens a can of worms and the eyes of officer Terry Colson (David Morse), and the dubious reconstruction efforts and demolition of houses, post Katrina, by the politicians and lobbyists.
As you can see from some of the characters mentioned, Simon seems to be using archetypes in this show; clearly delineated voices and recognizable character tropes so that you quickly get a grip on the large cast which he then deconstructs and subverts, showing the complexity, hypocrisy, moral weakness and strength that makes up this cast of flawed but beautiful characters.
This is very much a David Simon show. The journalistic eye for detail and information is here along with the strong moral voice that has had him compared to a modern day Dickens. This is not without problems. There is a tendency for his characters to be cyphers for political issues he wishes to discuss and like that other hectoring visionary, Oliver Stone, there is little scope for ambiguity in his world-view. It's an incisive diamond sharp vision for sure but sometimes it would be nice to be gently pointed in the right direction rather than having your ass kicked into his viewpoint. In this Simon is saying we live in dark times and we need a strong moral voice to bring us back into line.
Television offers the scope for languid, rich storytelling and character development on par with the novel but so often limits itself with formulaic, lowest common denominator cop shows. For this reason, work like 'Treme' should be cherished. With the advent of cable TV allowing more adult content and less rigid 20-plus episode seasons we are living in a golden age of serial television. What cinema has gained in visual panache and slick sugar rush adrenaline editing it has lost in its unique voices and moral purpose. The new Sydney Lumet's, Hal Ashby's and Terry Southern's are more likely to find their way on the small screen.
With one more shortened season remaining, this is something to behold. Filled with color, joie de vivre, pain and hope. This will in retrospect be noted as one of the key works in the modern age of the medium.

Jason Abbey