Thursday, December 8, 2011

Box Set Blues: Treme, Season 1

I was having a conversation in the car a couple of weeks ago about some of the TV we've been watching at home, and my wife pointed out that "not every show can be The Wire, you know." It's a dig not just at myself, but also at the constant harking back to David Simon sprawling Baltimore-set series as the pinnacle of modern television against which any other show that aspires to greatness must be judged. In fact in some quarters the reputation of the The Wire is so great I expect anyone who watches based on this reputation is bound to be disappointed that it doesn't reach out of the television and physically reroute their brains' sense of taste forever.

So when David Simon makes another TV series set as a portrait of a city, this time post-Katrina New Orleans, with an eclectic, talented cast and a mission to explore as broad a tapestry as possible, comparisons are inevitable. But Treme isn't The Wire. Nor should it be.

Hey, weren't you in The Wire?
At first I think I struggled with it, as there is no obvious hook into the story, no central character or central struggle to hang onto. As a viewer are simply thrown in to sprawling mass of storylines and situations and left to sink or swim (if you'll pardon the pun) and I can't help but wonder how many viewers don't make it past those first few episodes. You see, Treme doesn't really have a story; it has dozens, each character following their own arc through the storm wrecked city with no real central focus other than the storm and their experiences of it. It took me a few episodes to "get" that, and once I did, there is a joy to the gentle intersection of characters bumping into each other on their way through life, impacting on small ways that they can never appreciate, that it requires a viewer to see the whole cloth from the travelling threads.

A lot is made of The Wire's structure and that way that it is best viewed as a whole, with each episode a chapter, and the same is true here. But whereas The Wire felt like Dickens - moving through society to expose the ills of society and it's institutions, Treme is only touches on that, and is more a series of  personal journeys in search meaning, redemption or restoration. Whilst this makes it perfect box-set viewing, again, I can't help but wonder how it played weekly, and to be honest, it feels almost complete in one series, with it's second bound to change the rhythm.

As you might expect the performances are outstanding, but more remarkably you get not one but two fantastic, meaty roles for women in Toni (Melissa Leo) and LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), carrying what is probably closest to a traditional storyline for the show with the investigation into LaDonna's missing brother. Its not to disparage any of the other acting but both have huge moments to carry in the show. More problematic for me was Davis (Steve Zahn) who started out incredibly annoying but ended the show possibly my favorite character, although I'll never know if this is because the writing and acting started to gel better or if it was always planned that way.

This may look silly as a still, but the actual scene is electric. 
Davis also embodies what is one of the big themes of Treme - that of moving on. He's a man who loves the city, the idea of the city, and is the big voice for what that city should be, and perhaps for him, always will be. He's the stark contrast to Creighton (John Goodman), a man searching for a city he fears the storm has forever taken away from him, a fear that comes from the same place as Davis' love. By the end everyone has to move on - some forward, some less so, simply reclaiming what they once had, or accepting at the very least they have to go and look, and the series draws to a close with most people at least looking to the future, no matter how uncertain it may be.

In the end, Treme is a show that is very much it's own thing - wandering storylines, impromptu jazz interludes, and a bittersweet sense of deep loss that at first I wasn't too sure off. But it gets to you, embraces you with it's style and pacing, for all at first that may feel a little off. So it's not The Wire, and more importantly it's not trying to be, because just like it's characters, it's moving on....