Last night was the premiere of David Simon’s new show Treme, a show I’ve been looking forward to since its production was first announced, and a series that has some enormous, possibly unrealistic expectations. After making The Wire, a show that critics refer to as “the greatest television ever made” with the same assurance they have when calling Meryl Streep the greatest actress of her generation, Simon has made himself an almost impossibly high standard to top. It’s true that on the surface, the two shows have some marked similarities – they share two lead actors, they are both set in troubled American cities, and they employ the same basic formal structure of a large system of loosely connected characters who represent from different areas of the city. Here the similarities cease, and I think that bodes well for Treme’s future.
Simon’s new show is set in New Orleans, which instantly differentiates Treme’s opening from the experience of beginning The Wire. In both instances, the cities are struggling, and the shows seek to uncover something totally hidden from casual observers or tourists. For The Wire’s Baltimore, though, the process of discovery and realization happens continually throughout the series, both for viewers and the characters. It’s a safe assumption that The Wire’s audience goes into the show with almost no knowledge about the Baltimore drug trade, but oddly, the same can be said for the show’s cops and lawyers. In the first few episodes, Jimmy McNulty bothers his bosses just enough to open an investigation on Avon Barksdale, the leader of an immense criminal organization in the city. Immediately, that investigation is hampered by the fact that no one knows who Barksdale is, where to find him, how his organization works, or even what he looks like. The process of information gathering, of moving from ignorance to knowledge (and, as a corollary, from idealism to deep cynicism), is at the center of every season, and happens in every new area of the city. Tommy Carcetti gradually comes to understand the inner workings of Baltimore’s political machine, Roland Pryzbylewski learns how to function in the deeply damaged school system, Frank Sobotka uncovers the deeper system of criminal enterprise at the docks, etc. etc. The show is called The Wire – you get stuck inside an unfamiliar system, you listen in, you figure out how it works, you become disgusted by the futility of individual human endeavor.
No one who watches Treme will come to it with the same blank slate that audiences had for The Wire. The show grapples with the inner life of a city that already calls to mind associations, stereotypes, and tragedies, so introducing New Orleans isn’t the show’s concern. Treme’s New Orleans knows itself in a way that The Wire’s Baltimore never does – you, outsider, may have no idea who the Mardi Gras Indians are or what a Hubigs is, but everyone in Treme does. The difference is palpable in the show’s pilot. In the opening of The Wire, almost no one knows each other; everyone knows everyone else in Treme. The pilot takes place three months after Katrina, and it would make sense for the overwhelming tone of the show to be doubt, loss, and the reality of a familiar world suddenly rendered strange. Those qualities are certainly there, and it’s plain that Treme’s characters are still coping with grief for their lost jobs, friends and homes. For the most part, though, that loss is a shared loss, and the pilot sometimes takes on the qualities of an enormous, tentative, city-wide reunion. The episode opens with early hints of recovery – it’s the moment of the first second-line parade since the hurricane – and throughout the next 90 minutes, Treme collects characters who are rebuilding, returning to the city, and greeting each other after an absence.
I have no idea what will happen of the course of the show’s (hopefully many) future seasons, but it makes sense at this early moment to imagine Treme as cautiously optimistic view of American urban life. However subtle the differences may be between the opening themes of this show and Simon’s previous work, the biggest difference is immediately, intensely palpable. Treme is a show about New Orleans’ musicians, and the pilot episode is bursting with musical numbers that would almost overwhelm the show’s careful character development if the two weren’t so thoughtfully interwoven.
You could pick almost any scene of the pilot, point to it, and say “There. That’s what this show is going to be about,” but my favorite moment is the one that ends the episode. Antoine Batiste, a trombone player and one of the show’s central characters, shows up for a gig that he desperately needs for the money to support his family. The gig is a funeral, and Batiste discovers that he knew the deceased man while he prepares to join the band’s processional to the cemetery. A show about New Orleans, three months after Katrina – this should be a somber, mournful, reflective processional, and it is all of those things. But it’s not unfamiliar or new. The band all knows the right steps and the right chords, because this is the way funerals happen in Treme, and this is a part of New Orleans returning to itself. The music is perfect, of course; it’s contemplative, but it has a swagger and self-awareness that seems to imply full comprehension. Terrible things have happened, but these people are still here, and although the outside world may not know them, they know themselves, and they know how to move forward.