One of the enduring themes of David Simon’s award-winning series The Wire is the idea of the quiet apocalypse and of a society that is drifting into terminal decline not because of war or disease or alien invasion but because of stupidity, selfishness and the fundamental short-sighted perversity of human nature. After an uneven attempt at tackling the War in Iraq with Generation Kill (2008), Treme sees Simon teaming up with fellow Wire alumnus Eric Overmyer to take another look at America’s inevitable end. However, unlike The Wire, there is nothing quiet about Treme’s apocalypse as the end of this particular world was caused by Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the New Orleans levees that flooded the city leaving thousands of New Orleans residents, dead, disenfranchised and scattered to the four corners of a nation that simply did not care about the destruction of one of its most historical and culturally vibrant cities. Treme is about the on-going attempts by the residents of New Orleans to rebuild their lives and their city. Treme is a story about community and returning home but, as you might expect from a series helmed by David Simon, the picture of community it paints is far from idyllic.
If I had to compare Treme to any other TV series of recent times, my choice would be to compare it to David Milch’s gritty western drama Deadwood in that both series are character-based dramas and both series are ultimately about the evolution of the community that these characters are a part of. However, while Milch’s series allowed the characters to dictate the action by effectively having them to walk out their door and interact with whoever happened to be walking past, Simon’s series is far more traditionally structured. Treme is built around a series of more or less discrete emotional communities composed of characters who interact chiefly with each other.
The Bernette family are wealthy, middle-class and white. The household is dominated by the zealously city-proud college professor and YouTube star Creighton (John Goodman). While Creighton rages about the government, his wife Toni (Melissa Leo) is a civil rights lawyer who attempts to use America’s laws to pursue justice for her clients, thereby reclaiming the community from post-apocalyptic anarchy by re-instating the rule of law and reconnecting both victims and officials with the codes of justice that supposedly underpin American civil society. Between these two formidable presences is their daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) who (though underused in series one) hero worships her father to the point where she seems to be forcing him further and further into his obsessive anger at the government through a subtle process of encouragement.
The Lambreaux family is made up of ‘Big Chief’ Albert (Clarke Peters) and his son the jazz musician Delmond (Rob Brown). Albert Lambreaux is a key character in the series as he is a New Orleans ‘Indian Chief’, the head of one of the organized clans of revellers who take part in the city’s yearly Mardi Gras celebrations. Albert is a character steeped in history and heritage and his arrival back in the city after the storm serves as a focal point for many New Orleans residents hoping to return home or to find a new place for themselves in the ruined city. However, while Albert swims in the history of New Orleans, his son Delmond enjoys a far more conflicted attitude towards the city as he has turned his back on New Orleans’ musical heritage in order to forge himself a career as a trumpeter working out of New York. The tension between the two men (under-exploited in this series at least) goes some way towards articulating one of the series’ basic themes, namely the conflict between an individual’s need to go his own way and his need to fit into a wider community.
Simon and his team of writers depict New Orleans as an endlessly open and welcoming city but also as a city with its own very clear set of rules. Rules that must be obeyed at all times. In one key scene, the character of Davis McAlary (Zahn) berates his neighbours for failing to realize the heritage of their neighbourhood and for daring to move into a historical black neighbourhood whilst being white and middle-class. Needless to say, Davis is himself very white and very middle-class but he would argue that he has learned the rules and so he gets a pass. This need to ‘learn the rules’ is at the heart of the tension between humanity’s need to exist as a part of a wider social community and its need to be true to itself and its own chosen values. This tension is particularly clear in another social grouping.
Annie and Sonny are a pair of street musicians. Annie (Micarelli) is a beautiful and classically trained violinist who arrived in New Orleans, fell in love with the music and set about trying to make a name for herself whilst learning the particular style of New Orleans rhythm and blues. Her guide in this quest is Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a former drug-addict from Holland who has seemingly internalised the somewhat scabrous values of the New Orleans music scene. Annie and Sonny play beautifully together but it is quite clear from the start of the series that Annie is the real star in this partnership while Sonny’s expertise and passion never quite make up for a lack of talent that keeps him from staking out a place at the top table. In one powerful scene, Sonny is invited to play in a band with a well-respected musician but after failing to distinguish himself sufficiently, Sonny is replaced by another pianist reducing Sonny to pointing out that one of the keys is a bit sticky. Sonny’s lack of progress in his chosen field forces him not only back into drugs but also into an increasing sense of paranoia over Annie’s blossoming career. When Annie starts to play different styles with different people in different places, Sonny accuses her of selling out and of not being true to the spirit of the music in so far as their partnership really works. By framing his accusations in terms of Annie failing to ‘learn the rules’ and ‘obey the music’, Sonny is showing us not only the arbitrary nature of the social conventions that underpin communities but also how monstrously unfair they can be to the people who want membership of a community but not at any price.
Running throughout Treme is a surprisingly sophisticated engagement with the question of whether or not New Orleans is really a city worth saving. The problem is that, while there is no denying that New Orleans has played a central role in the development of American popular culture, would reconstructing the city be an investment in the future of American culture or a pointless act of nostalgic self-indulgence? By stressing how alienating and odd New Orleans culture can be and by showing us how these sorts of social conventions can be easily overturned, Treme suggests that culture is not something that exists in the past but something that must continue to evolve and to move forward. If Annie cannot live with the laddish culture of New Orleans musicians then it is New Orleans’ loss as Annie is a brilliant fiddle player and if Annie cannot make it in New Orleans she will doubtless go somewhere else and be a part of the creative community there. This idea is also explored in another social grouping.
Janette and Davis show two sides of New Orleans. Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) is a world-class chef. Charismatic, enthusiastic, gifted, innovative and flexible, she wins over customers and critics alike with food that flows straight from her bright and shining soul. However, Janette is unlucky. In fact, despite the quality of her cooking, every business venture she turns her hand to turns almost instantly to shit forcing her further and further into debt and desperation. After an unexpected storm wipes out her new identity as a guerrilla chef and leaves her owing a small fortune to some local musicians, Janette admits to herself that New Orleans has beaten her. This prompts her sometimes fuck-buddy Davis to pull out all of the stops in attempting to rekindle her love for the city with a day of visits to Janette’s favourite haunts. However, as Davis and Janette move from beignet-house to jazz club, the underlying problem is made all too clear: These restaurants and clubs continue to exist because people seek them out for nostalgic reasons. Janette is a gifted chef who should have found a place on New Orleans’ culinary map but because she is young and because she is still trying to make a name for herself, she does not benefit from New Orleans’ nostalgia-infused charm and so struggles to find an appreciative paying audience. In essence, the city would not allow her to add her distinctiveness to its collective identity forcing Janette to think about trying her luck elsewhere. Janette’s experience of New Orleans stands in marked contrast with that of Davis. Davis is a wonderfully disreputable scion of a wealthy New Orleans family who manages to carve out an existence for himself purely by virtue of his ability to work the very system of ties and rules that prevents Janette from finding a place for herself. For example, when Davis decides to release a record, he can call on all kinds of free musical help to produce what is ultimately nothing more than a cover-version. However, when Janette tries to keep her restaurant open and producing innovative food, she finds the community of New Orleans unwilling to extend credit or even the smallest amount of help.
The difference between Janette and Davis’ experiences of the city suggests that grand old social institutions such as New Orleans are not merely conservative and resistant to change but hostile to change in a manner that is entirely self-destructive. For example, when Davis’ cover version proves to be an unexpected hit, Davis pockets the money instead of sharing it with the musicians whose talent allowed his unimaginative cover version to find an audience. Similarly, when Davis uses the song to launch a political career, he winds up bowing out of the race in return for political favours and not for the sort of concessions that his supporters might have wanted. Davis preys on people’s nostalgia and he benefits from it without ever encountering the consequences of his actions. Davis sucks money out of people’s pockets and makes the political system more corrupt, thereby harming the institution but rather than punishing him, the institution continues to reward him. In other words, Davis’s success demonstrates how self-destructive the conservatism of old institutions can be. Davis brings nothing to the table and yet is rewarded, Janette tries to make things better and to treat people fairly and she is punished for it. Such is the nature of social institutions: They are so conservative that they would rather destroy themselves than change.
Because Treme is a series that is quite traditionally structured, it sometimes struggles to give an impression of a wider community beyond the lives of its characters. Deadwood managed to get around this by placing the narrative emphasis squarely on the characters meaning that a Deadwood resident could step outside his or her door and encounter anyone resulting in plots that did arise simply by virtue of having one character run into another while in a particular frame of mind. This is a brilliant dramatic conceit as it not only mirrors the way in which communities function, it also builds in the idea of an individual’s struggle against the collective. By opting for a more traditional structure, Treme is forced to confront the issue of individuality vs. collectivism in quite explicit terms meaning that ‘New Orleans’ quite often feels more like the convenient but invisible hand of the author imposing itself upon the characters in order to drive the plot. Of course, this vision of institutions as real things that exist in the world and affect our lives is not only a legitimate vision of the world but one that is quite different to the vision embodied by Deadwood’s presentation of community as a thing that emerges naturally from the actions of individuals. For the characters in Deadwood, there is no such thing as society but, for the characters in Treme, community is both a psychological reality and a tangible force in the world. As coherent and legitimate as this vision of society may be, it does mean that Simon sometimes struggles to convey ‘community’ in anything other than hand-wavy terms.
Most of the hand waving takes place in Treme’s attempts to engage with the real-life politics of post-Katrina New Orleans. As in The Wire, Treme’s political engagement takes the form of injecting real-world political issues into the narrative. For example, one of the problems with the lack of investment in reconstruction efforts is that, instead of repaving the roads that were damaged by the storm, many contractors simply filled in many of the potholes with gravel resulting in the residents of New Orleans damaging their cars, making it even harder for them to get around the city. Similarly, due to both a lack of Federal commitment to the city’s future and some supposed political gerrymandering intended to prevent poor black people from voting in New Orleans, the government decided not to re-open many of its housing projects despite their not having been damaged by either the flood or the storm. Both of these political realities are dealt with in Treme by having the characters ‘deal’ with the consequences of these decisions. However, while the crisis of American labour, the problems of inner city schooling and the challenge of politicised police departments formed the backbone of The Wire’s narrative, Treme’s engagement with political issues frequently feels somewhat tokenistic and shallow. For example, when Davis’ car loses a wheel as a result of his driving into a pothole, he is forced to pay for a lift but despite this experience prompting him to write a song, the issue is then never dealt with again. Similarly, when Big Chief Lambreaux decides to occupy a boarded-up project, he is thrown into prison for a few days but this incarceration has little impact either on his relationship with his son or his attempt to reunite his gang. While Simon’s treatment of Baltimore politics spoke of a deep understanding of the problems of the system and where the sources of those problems lay, Simon’s engagement with post-Katrina Louisiana politics all too often manifests itself as a rather abstract sense of anger and betrayal at ‘the system’. This lack of focus also served to weaken Simon’s attempt to tackle the War in Iraq in Generation Kill.
Similarly problematic are Simon et al’s attempts to create a sense of community by having the various groups of characters encounter each other. This frequently takes place thanks to a number of lesser characters such as Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) and Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) whose arcs serve mostly as vehicles either for some unsubtle commentary on social issues (Ladonna lost her brother in the post-Katrina administrative fuck-up while Antoine struggles to find work as a musician, thereby showing how hard it is to keep the musical scene afloat) or as mediators between the different social groups. The ungainly nature of Simon’s attempts to build community is evident in these moments when characters from different groups rub up against each other. For example, Davis and Annie wind up spending Mardi Gras together but while the final episode of the series suggests that the characters will have a more substantial relationship in series 2, the encounter goes without consequence for the bulk of the series. In fact, many of these moments seem to serve no purpose other than to remind us that the different groups are all indeed part of the same community. For a show that is all about community, this is a serious structural problem that Simon has never had to engage with before as in Homicide: A Year on the Streets, The Wire and Generation Kill, the lack of interaction between the different communities was part of the point that Simon was attempting to make. Forced to depict a community that is trying to come together rather than conspiring to fall apart, Simon struggles.
Though far from an unalloyed success, Treme’s thematic depth and dramatic complexity are undeniably arresting while Simon’s eye for great televisual moments remains unimpeachable. Indeed, as questionable as its artistic merit may be, there is real beauty in the enthusiasm and joy of Davis’ recoding session while Big Chief Lambert’s late-night feathery posing comes dangerously close to rivalling The Wire’s fuck-based investigation sequence in terms of pure creative fireworks. Lovers of jazz, rhythm and blues and old school musical Americana in general will obviously find their joy in this series’ copious musical interludes but even as someone who hates jazz and has only the most fleeting of interests in music in general, I cannot deny the music power at communicating both the texture and flavour of life in New Orleans.
For what it’s worth, the second season delves more deeply into the actual business of politics, and the processes it describes are more mundane than the ones you mention. Though I agree that elements like Albert’s protest are perhaps heavy-handed, I think you may be overstating the importance of politics in the series, and the political significance of many of the first season’s storylines. Though politics obvious affects each of the characters (as it affects each of us) an important theme in Treme is the creative process – mostly musical, but in Janette’s case also culinary.
As much as it is about politics, Treme is about how music is made, how a community of musicians forms and sustains itself, and whether that community can (or should) survive in the wake of Katrina. As you say, the politics of New Orleans’s abandonment, slow rebuilding, and change in the wake of that rebuilding are bound up in its artistic heritage and tourist appeal, and I think that that question – is New Orleans culture something worthwhile, or an ossified tourist attraction, and can it be revitalized – is a worthy one in its own right, and one that the show is very interested in (for example, I wouldn’t have called Antoine a secondary character – he surely has more screen time than Annie and Sonny – but his stories are all about the struggles of a musician, with almost no political component). Again, this is something the second season explores at greater depth.
I think this proves that there are many roads into a given text… I didn’t really engage with the musical stuff partly because I really don’t like jazz but also because, having spent quite a bit of time around jobbing musicians, I don’t think the series shed very much light on them.
I class Antoine as a minor character because, despite the amount of screen time lavished on him, he doesn’t really *do* very much and so I saw him largely as a lynchpin for the wider community and as a vehicle for including musical interludes while the real dramatic action (the individual’s place in society) took place elsewhere.
I’m sure that a lot of these loose knots are tightened up in the second series though and it’ll be interesting to see how the second series will colour my perceptions of the first series.
I have a post coming on Treme, but one small point: I think it’s actually important that Annie came to New Orleans with Sonny only because *he* had fallen in love with the music. In other words, rather than falling in love with *it * and then meeting him there, her attachment to the place is a function of her relationship with him (or at least was at the start).
I had either forgotten or not picked up on that. It certainly presents Sonny’s irritation at her fledgling career in a more reasonable light as the suggestion is that her relationship to the music is symbolic of their relationship.
Many ways into a text indeed – your reading is completely at odds with my own, which is closer to Abigail’s. I wouldn’t focus solely on music – Treme seems to me about culture, and where we most agree is on that thorny issue of ‘heritage’ and its preservation – but I think you over-emphasise the idea of ‘rules’. For instance, Sonny and Annie’s music isn’t particularly rooted in the New Orleans style – Sonny’s love of the city seems more based on its lifestyle than a real understanding of what lies beneath it. Indeed, the band Annie unsuccessfully auditions for is a bona fide New Orleans band – they play in the complex, authentic cajun style – and her failure is almost a function of her superficial, dysfunctional relationship with both Sonny and the city. (In fact, she only plays a properly cajun part once she’s shot of Sonny, a pretty glorious version of the song ‘Dixie Flyer’, which begins with the line, “I was born right here”.)
Perhaps our readings rest on our different levels of interest in music – I’m exactly the sort of viewer who gets a great deal of joy from the show’s music. But regardless of whether you know your Dr Johns from your Kermit Ruffins, I think the band is the show’s principal metaphor for community and cohesion. It’s how the show tells us what culture is for – that it’s not just nostalgia, but a vessel for carrying around with us who we are and where we want to be.
And don’t forget: the best jazz players are the ones who break the rules. Improvisation is knowing the basic chords and flying over the top.
[…] background, and foregrounded always is the formation, the management, the performances of bands. In writing about Treme, Jonathan McCalmont has wondered if the show’s approach to the world of New Orleans […]
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