Ah, Treme. As the date drew nearer, and the accumulation of promotional articles and reviews built, I was looking forward to the premier and also was a little wary. The Wire was one of the best narrative dramas I’ve ever experienced, in any form, and David Simon clearly is a brilliant story teller. So I was excited about his new work, and especially about a show about New Orleans. And while I was expecting something solid, I wasn’t thinking that the show could possibly be the equal of that extraordinary trifecta on the network, formed with The Sopranos and Deadwood.
I think I was wrong. The first episode was engrossing and more than a little moving. At one point I noticed that it had already run past an hour and felt a sudden rush of hope that it would go on all night! I’ll leave the recaps to others, but I will be following up each episode with my impressions. What Treme showed me last night was:
People: Simon is well know for his outrage over how public institutions fail society, but he only feels that outrage because he cares about people. All people. He’s a true American, not a fake, in that way. Treme is full of people, and the institutions seem like they will be in the background. The show’s focus on people, with their charms and failings and cares and values, is deeply humanist and ethical. People are not disposable, no matter what institutions tried to tell us in 2005 and what they still say.
Also, unlike almost every movie or TV show, a lot of these people, if not most, are black (The Wire and Oz , shows about drug crime and prison, also had heavily black casts. Think about that). At this point in American history, in this country which was founded and built as much by African slaves as it was WASPS, there are still those with public voices and public power who seek to to avoid seeing that blacks in America are as American as everybody else. Even more so, because of the
Music: Of course the show is full of music. It’s about music in a way, but not in the sense of playing a lot of the sounds of New Orleans. American popular music essentially comes from that city. The Rock and Roll Museum is in Cleveland, but the music would not even exist without The Crescent City (would the same people who suggested New Orleans be abandoned also abandon Cleveland? Wouldn’t go over well with ethnic white voters, who seem to still run the country of the imagination). Put marches, church hymns, work songs and French and Spanish dance music into that city and you get blues, jazz and everything else (which includes a funny and exquisitely perfect use of a snatch of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s Symphony No. 2. Gottschalk helped create American classical music out of New Orleans!). The best place to hear it is in that odd New Orleans ensemble, the brass band, which is meant for the streets and plays a totally unique and beautiful combination of all the musics that went into that city. Those bands tell the story of American music every time they play. And on Treme, they get to play a lot. Music is the
Language of the show: like the language of Baltimore, you can’t always understand it, but it sounds like the language of someplace you don’t quite know but that is totally familiar. And the characters all have their own language, their own ways of talking that help mark them as real people. It sounds both stylish and true, and having people speak in their own voices is deeply engrossing. It also show real care for America, the place made up of many colors and many languages, where the vast majority of people live in cities and enjoy seeing all sorts of people on the streets. The other, imaginary America that seems to show up most often on TV is the place full of angry white Republicans, a distinct and insane minority that for some reason must be heard. As usual, it takes the artist and their imaginations to show us how things actually are, outside the simulation of the Media-Political Industrial Complex.