An Artful Imbalance

An Artful Imbalance

Treme is an understated and deeply melancholic patchwork of American stubbornness.


The Wire is one of the few serial dramas in television history whose viewers thought that watching it earned them a merit badge. HBO’s gripping, dynamic procedural panorama of the cops, drug dealers, stevedores and politicians linked across the grim economy of postindustrial Baltimore has been compared to Shakespeare and Dickens, referenced by Cam’ron, Eminem and Young Jeezy, and theorized by academics as a topic and model of social critique. When Barack Obama called it his favorite television program, he wasn’t just telling the truth, but signaling his cultural literacy and an enlightened stance on various forms of institutional dysfunction. The mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, distilled his enthusiasm into an edict, declaring that he would cooperate only with politicians who had watched all five seasons of The Wire. The good-for-you hyperbole that insulates this singular cultural object from criticism seems unlikely to deflate anytime soon.

The Wire turned some friends of mine into social workers and local activists, others into graduate students, and their lives are the better for it. But did the show cumulatively telegraph anything other than an overwhelming pessimism in the face of relentless capitalist expansion? Omar, the show’s swashbuckling contract killer with a moral code, justified his activities by declaring “It’s all in the game,” and his fatalistic MO jibed with series creator David Simon’s own sense of the intractability of structural racism, structural inequality, structural decline. (Simon’s other programs include The Corner, Generation Kill and Homicide: Life on the Street.) In The Wire’s uncompromising autopsy, the American metropolis is shown to be a failed experiment, where every glimmer of possibility leads down a fast track to disappointment and ruin. Nobody escapes the game, and, sorry, the game is rigged. Deserved or not, Simon—who blogs at a personal website called The Audacity of Despair—has cultivated a reputation as the bitterest pill in American entertainment.

Decades of despair are given a temporary therapeutic respite in Treme, Simon and Eric Overmyer’s unjustly ignored, truly sui generis television series about labor, leisure and music in post-Katrina New Orleans. The duo announced a different set of intentions by naming the show after a specific place, Tremé—the country’s oldest African-American neighborhood—and at a time when only people with a mighty compelling reason to return there from exile (and those who had no place else to go) had made it their home. HBO’s perpetually low-rated drama, which premiered in 2010 and somehow survived long enough to complete a truncated fourth and final season in December, Treme initially seemed like the result of Simon’s quest for an environment ungoverned by market logic. The show retains his fascination with the death and life of great American cities, but Treme isn’t here to deliver the bad news. Densely atmospheric, foregrounding a kind of humanist exuberance that does not seem fleeting, Treme is an existential rebuttal to its formidable predecessor. Simon, a curmudgeonly ex-newspaperman and perpetual gadfly, has unforgettably cataloged all the reasons to quit; now he wants to know why the struggle could be worthwhile.  

What makes a city worth inhabiting, let alone fixing? Simon is not an up-with-people kinda guy, but the living theater of New Orleans sends him over the moon, representing “the best we can be as Americans: It’s a triumph of the melting pot, right down to the rhythms of the street! It’s black, it’s white, it’s Cuban, it’s Haitian. It’s our greatest export.” If the show clearly originated as a sentimental valentine, it never feels quite so deliriously naïve as that exclamation. While music can seem like a great equalizer and lubricant for Treme’s racially and ethnically mixed collection of gregarious locals, every episode is subtly attuned to the structural forces that stifle the flourishing of a post-racial bohemia. The show chronicles the disastrously unequal impact of public housing demolitions and post-flood redevelopment projects, and underscores the reality that Mardi Gras krewes are still largely segregated. On television, race representation remains so skewed that, as the comic Wyatt Cenac recently quipped, “There are more TV shows starring vampires than starring minorities.” Treme showcases the most diverse ensemble of black performers on contemporary American screens, and it’s become a rare haven for directors of color like Ernest Dickerson, Anthony Hemingway and Roxann Dawson. (The Wire was eventually syndicated to BET, and the less popular Treme would benefit from a similar fate.) 

Only perfunctorily concerned with plot, Treme offers little of what draws viewers to prestige programs like The Sopranos. It’s an indulgence. Simon and Overmyer use the scope of serialized narrative to evoke a sense of lived experience; the show provides evidence of its creators’ humbled intelligence, one not constantly seeking the causes that explain the effects. It eschews the tidy coincidence and smug oversimplification of a “network narrative” and never tries to make New Orleans seem smaller than it is. Whereas The Wire’s 200 or so speaking characters all seemed to cross paths, the narrative interconnectedness of Treme cannot be reduced to a flow chart. For all The Wire’s departures from the NYPD Blue crime drama format, it was still tightly scripted, rigorously controlled, always juggling several narratives in progress from point A to point B. But even when introducing a subplot about government corruption or police brutality, Treme continues to shuffle along amiably, generating a kind of ambient suspense through a lack of incident. 

Many of those who applauded The Wire’s revivification of an American social realist tradition have felt out of step with Treme’s quirky narrative ramble, even though the show sacrifices little of Simon’s crusading liberalism. (One of season three’s plotlines follows the research and development of an investigative article for The Nation.) In its emphasis on spaces seemingly untouched by institutional power, the show favors a different but no less vital kind of politics—a form of everyday resistance that’s messy and rhythmic, and affective rather than staunchly materialist. “As good as it is at effects,” wrote New Orleans native Nicholas Lemann in The New York Review of Books, “Treme isn’t so good at causes—of the immediate disaster, and of its seemingly never-ending aftermath. To explain that, Simon will have to move outside the appealing and tight cultural frame in which the action thus far has taken place.” Hurricane Katrina, the causes of institutional collapse—explain that. The political scientist Adolph Reed called the show an “abysmal failure,” saying that its cultural tourism “cannot help us make sense of the social forces that have produced New Orleans and its patterns of social relations and that will shape its and its residents’ future.” Simon, help us make sense. For Dave Thier at The Atlantic, “the most obvious problem with Treme is that it is boring…. Simon could ask all the same questions about New Orleans that he did about Baltimore, but his infatuation with the city clouds his eye.” Ask the same questions.

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A travelogue show that loudly insisted on the authenticity of New Orleans and the accuracy of its own depiction would rightly be deemed insufferable. Simon was up front about his desire to get the details right, to shoot on location, cast a bunch of locals and ensure that every “lagniappe” receives a spot-on pronunciation. But on the day of the show’s premiere, he published an open letter in The Times-Picayune warning the “fact-grounded literalists” that “we have trespassed throughout our narrative…. And [we] will be subject to the judgment of you whom we have trespassed against.” (Dave Walker’s Treme Explained blog at the T-P website has approvingly and entertainingly annotated the show’s local references in real time.) It’s clear that Simon and Overmyer’s bid for local respect is less dependent on deploying proper place names than on cultivating a serious respect for the hard work that props up an ecosystem saturated by earthly indulgences, and a sensitivity toward the ways the city’s traditions have been so easily grifted and commodified. In its dramatization of love and theft, Treme is one of the least condescending depictions of cultural labor that I’ve seen on-screen. 

Treme’s pivotal figure is the Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters, a distinguished Wire alum who also brought a turbulent intensity to Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. Albert is the leader of an esoteric and very real secret society, the Guardians of the Flame. Chanting in a distinctive patois, this working-class Afrocentric tribe appropriates its aesthetic from Native American traditions—not to usurp their power, but to acknowledge their shared social marginality. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition, over a century old, also pays tribute to the Native Americans who harbored runaway slaves. Every year, the Guardians spend an entire year hand-stitching their colorful, breathtakingly ornate beaded costumes, vying to be deemed the “prettiest” on Mardi Gras day. Albert is unfailingly sour and stubborn—“Won’t bow, don’t know how” is his trademark intonation, and one that succinctly defines his relationship to the law—but the show affords his obsession an uncommon measure of respect. “Will the Guardians suit up for Mardi Gras this year?” is the common narrative thread of each Treme season. “Will the cops let them?” is the other. In the second season, the Big Chief’s son Delmond (Rob Brown), a popular New York jazz trumpeter who has developed a modern hard-bop sound, gives up fighting his father’s intransigence and records an album incorporating Albert’s Indian traditions. (Christian Scott’s 2012 Christian aTunde Adjuah is the album’s acclaimed real-world corollary.) Still, Albert’s locally well-recognized place atop a tribal hierarchy does next to nothing for his social capital. The aging artist earns his keep by plastering renovated homes purchased by the wealthy, work that takes a serious toll on his health. 

The tavern owner LaDonna (fiercely embodied by Khandi Alexander), who eventually hosts the Guardians’ raucous rehearsal sessions, is the show’s long-suffering avatar of implacable, inexplicable fortitude. In season one, she seeks information about her missing brother, who was taken into police custody when Katrina hit the city, and is stymied at every turn. Later, after being victimized by a violent crime, she refuses to leave her bar behind, even as her solid dentist husband in Baton Rouge encourages her to quit the city and join him for good. Touchingly, he eventually realizes that the defiance and pride she musters in the face of unending humiliation and despair is the source of their romantic spark. She stays in New Orleans. He moves.

The show’s ensemble includes all manner of headstrong hustlers and knights of the spirit: musicians of every stripe, DJs, chefs, baristas, district attorneys, impresarios, developers, journalists, cops, shrimp boat captains, united only by their uncommon resilience and a faith that compels them to hunker down in a battered and thoroughly dysfunctional place. The excessive preaching these folks do on behalf of New Orleans’ proud exceptionalism cannot be easily separated from willful self-delusion.

Not by accident, the series’ two most exasperating characters are the ones who bear the closest resemblance to Simon’s bumptious public persona: Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), the grating and unflappable goofball, and Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), the hectoring, self-righteous, profane Tulane professor. Both are self-appointed shamans (and privileged white men) who try to wrangle personal control of the city’s post-Katrina malaise by publicly disseminating their paeans to the city’s cultural heritage. Davis the DJ is a politically naïve, musically challenged Garden District blue-blood turned Treme resident and full-time booster, constantly seeking novel ways to harness the local mystique for self-serving ends. Creighton, who when not ostentatiously thumbing copies of The Awakening or The Moviegoer can be found posting first-person political harangues on YouTube, is eventually revealed as not just shallow but tragically unbalanced. The ongoing, unsubtle auto-critique of dewy-eyed views serves as Simon’s obvious rebuke to anyone who might accuse him of shilling for the tourist bureau. 

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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.

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