An Artful Imbalance
The dramatic experiment of Treme emerges from the absence of structure in the tragic, temporary cessation of law and order. Simon’s navigation of the flood’s aftermath stakes out a territory somewhere between Naomi Klein’s gloomy, methodical warnings of a post-disaster neoliberal “shock doctrine” and Rebecca Solnit’s fascination with “the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities.” As Solnit writes: “In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.” Simon doesn’t share Solnit’s faith in the possibility of a paradise built in hell, but it’s bracing to watch one of America’s most prominent doomsayers cast an approving eye on those who wrap their troubles in dreams. The revelry of blissful abnegation bears a proud historical tradition: in the antebellum era, the Tremé neighborhood was a place where, on Sundays, slaves gathered in the town square for song and dance.
The city’s monumental musical tradition is Treme’s subject as well as its pulse, though the show’s lengthy performance sequences—approximately fifteen minutes of every episode—have become a sticking point for impatient viewers. Loving Treme means developing a tolerance, if not an affinity, for traditional brass-band jazz, not to mention hard bop, sissy bounce, alt-country and zydeco. Yes, the music can be oppressive, a sign of too-muchness, and some of it is just awful. But there’s an admirable poise in the camera’s staunch refusal to cut away from a jam session in the middle of a song, and the majority of these musical interludes reward close attention. Character development on Treme often rests upon a jazzman’s discovery of a new sound, or a fleeting instance of transcendent creative symbiosis. The rewards are minor but deeply felt. Though Simon proudly claims that the show delivered a $3.5 million boost to the local music community, New Orleans is a city where any success hits a low ceiling—you can actually make a career, it seems, provided that all you want to do is play, eat, mess around and get high. The show’s boisterous democratic spirit is best embodied by a man who can live with this deal: Antoine Batiste, played by the irresistible New Orleans native (and Wire alum) Wendell Pierce, is something like the seventh-best trombone player in the city, kept in regular brass-band rotation but never famous enough not to always be hustling for that next gig.
Simon’s shows thrive on a kind of artful imbalance; he likes to mix amateurs and professionals. The never-ending flow of musical cameos includes Dr. John and Trombone Shorty, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, Juvenile and Big Freedia, if not Lil Wayne. Sometimes he hires or casts professionals as amateurs. Bad-boy food tourist Anthony Bourdain was drafted to write the majority of the dramatically stagnant if superficially appetizing scenes that follow chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) through the kitchens of New Orleans and Manhattan. One result is that Momofuku’s famously hotheaded David Chang comes off as blandly, unfailingly generous. In season two, former New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas, who resigned his seat after taking $20,000 in bribes and kickbacks, is cast as a sympathetic version of himself, a role he originated in a biographical play he co-wrote and performed after leaving prison. One regular cast member, Juilliard-trained violin prodigy Lucia Micarelli, plays a French Quarter street fiddler turned roots-rock sensation, but she can’t carry her dramatic scenes as skillfully as she handles her instrument. I also don’t share Simon’s enthusiasm for the lefty singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who (at least in spirit) reprises his Wire role as a kind of gritty, saintly street poet.
Though nearly all of Treme’s artists are tested by compromises over idealism and creative control, the show is less interested in who’s keeping it real than, as ever, who pockets the profits. New Orleans’ insistence on an exceptionalism that exempts it from both federal law—this is the land of the to-go cup and the drive-thru daiquiri, where fine distinctions are regularly drawn between vice and sin—and the bustle of big business is exactly what makes its cultural heritage such a valuable commodity for speculators. The predicament of Treme’s good citizens is an almost exact illustration of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” whereby the hopes and attachments we grasp at to compensate for life’s inadequacies are what keep us from flourishing. For these survivors caught in the precarious aftermath of trauma, finding new ways to do more with less ensures that less is all they’ll ever get.
Treme can’t be mistaken for an op-ed, but Simon never fully abandons the soapbox. The flood initially serves as a deus ex machina, a disastrous wallop that throws a city and a way of life out of whack. But in Treme’s later seasons, the calamity reveals as much crippling infrastructural damage as it caused; all of a sudden, post-Katrina New Orleans, a playground for opportunistic fraudsters and disaster capitalists awaiting the threat of more violent weather on the horizon, begins to seem like a synecdoche for post-crash America. This convergence might allay the concerns of season one’s most ardent critics, but it sometimes clashes with the underdetermined, do-whatcha-wanna hospitality of Treme’s approach. Thankfully, Jon Seda’s ruthless, quick-stepping, wildly improvisatory Texan real-estate speculator Nelson Hidalgo, who swoops into town bragging about his ability to “sell a sandbox to Saddam,” develops into one of the show’s liveliest and least dismissible characters.
The Africanist scholar and blogger Aaron Bady, in the most convincing analysis I’ve read of Treme’s early episodes, sees the apparent absence of The Wire’s critique of neoliberalism as a deliberate withholding; the show’s “focus is so intensely fixed on the things that make life worth living as to lose a sense for why it became so hard, so suddenly, to do so.” Simon isn’t denying that structural and social factors can limit basic access to status, wealth and power; rather, he’s dramatizing an attempt to live, and live well, despite the nonnegotiable inevitability of injustice and devastation. All is not in vain, at least not always, at least not now. The show’s ensemble contains no self-conscious political revolutionaries, but its characters forge plenty of strategic alliances and engineer a surprising amount of ground-level social change.
I’m not going to argue that Treme is a more essential show than The Wire, but it’s a rare thing indeed: an understated and deeply melancholic patchwork of American stubbornness, charged by an unlikely patriotism. Its only real sin—or is it a vice?—is trying to avoid too many conventions at once. As much as I love the show, I can’t say I saw any urgent need for a fourth season. There weren’t any narrative loose ends to tie up, not that I think the show would have been interested in doing so. The considerable life-affirming pleasures of Treme, and the unlikely gift of its existence, gives rise to its own form of cruel optimism: it’s a show so good you can’t help but wish it was even better.