Entertainment

Treme: New TV Show by "Wire" Creator Rich in Atmosphere, Short on Plot

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It was never going to be easy for David Simon to create a follow-up to "The Wire". There is much to like about "Treme", writes Jon Fasman, but is it too much to ask for a plot?

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“After delivering arguably the best television series ever made in 'The Wire', the reward for its creator David Simon shouldn’t be to saddle him with the expectation that he can top it.” That was Tim Goodman's take in the San Francisco Chronicle two days before the premiere of “Treme”, Simon’s new series about post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s a generous sentiment, and of course nobody should expect Simon to top “The Wire”, which in fact was not arguably but definitively the best television series ever made. 

But artists have track records, like it or not. Philip Roth’s last three novels have been miserable—hermetic, second-rate jerk-off material. But the guy wrote three of the last century’s great novels (“Portnoy’s Complaint”, “Operation Shylock” and “American Pastoral”), so he can publish whatever he likes, and suckers like me will buy every one. Fans who pay $500 to see the Rolling Stones aren’t lining up for “Rough Justice” (the lead track on their 2005 album “A Bigger Bang”—I had to look it up too). And Simon never would have sold “Treme” if it weren’t for “The Wire”.

So no, nobody expects Simon to top it, but neither should Simon expect anyone to watch his new series without reference to his last one—especially as it bears a number of similarities, actors included. Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, standouts in “The Wire”, do similarly great work as a beleaguered trombonist (pictured above) and a Mardi Gras Indian. Khandi Alexander and Melissa Leo, who starred in earlier shows written by Simon (“The Corner” and “Homicide”), similarly shine as a bar owner searching for her lost brother and the lawyer who helps her find him. These four get some good material. Pierce and Alexander make their relationship—ex-spouses who still care for each other—feel lived in and real: they banter affectionately late one night at Alexander's bar, and then snap at each other when Alexander chides him for ignoring their children while finding out he has fathered one with another woman. And Peters branches out beyond his eminence grise role in "The Wire" to show hints of both grace—as when he dances out of the darkness in full Indian-chief regalia, then retreats once again—and menace, as when he beats senseless a thief who stole from him.
 
After just two episodes, it is too early for final judgment. But “Treme” seems to be built on what made “The Wire” great, while omitting what made it good. The greatness is its breadth, texture and, most of all, its specificity. The creators take pains to get the locations, slang, geography and accents right. In much the same way that "The Wire" gave a full view of Baltimore, from the mayor's office down to the drug dealers' street corners, "Treme" gives similar treatment to New Orleans, concentrating on the city's two great gifts to the world: its food and its music.

There is as much eating "Treme" as there was shooting up in "The Wire", and here too authenticity is all: not a dish goes by (of gumbo, po'boys, crawdaddies, etc) that isn't named or that doesn't look good. Even Hubig's cellophane-wrapped pies make an appearance: upon discovering that her restaurant has run out of dessert, Kim Dickens, who plays a struggling restaurateur, pulls one out of her purse, unwraps it, plops it on a plate and tells her sous chef to "dress it up, darlin': drizzle somethin' on it". (The accuracy of such scenes has become a subject of some proud quibbling in the blogosphere, a subject that Simon has since addressed in a way that should put such finger-pointing to rest: "'Treme' is drama, and therefore artifice. It is not journalism. It is not documentary. It is a fictional representation set in a real time and place, replete with moments of inside humor, local celebrity and galloping, unrestrained meta. At moments,  if we do our jobs correctly, it may feel real.")

The show really shines when it comes to music. Kermit Ruffins, the Rebirth Brass Band and “Uncle” Lionel Batiste all appear as themselves (as do countless other musicians whom I've failed to recognise). A snide British journalist in the first episode sneers that the city's music "has rather had its day". John Goodman's angry professor, tired of the Limey's sneers, hurls his mic into the canal, and with good reason: the city's hard-driving, polyphonic brass-band swing is as timeless and complex as anything by Mozart or Beethoven. Anyone not dancing during “Blackbird Special” in the second episode ought to be checked for a pulse.
 
But is it too much to ask for a plot? Even a little hint of a plot? It may appear eventually, but for now the show is a series of expertly acted vignettes around the common theme of loss and rebuilding—worthy, but not compelling. Sure, "The Wire" had the built-in spine of a police procedural undergirding its sprawling complexity, while "Treme" is about rebuilding a culture, which is necessarily more amorphous. But for four seasons of “The Wire”, agenda was secondary to plot. In the fifth season, when Simon settled scores with the newspaper industry, politics took over and the show started to seem cartoonish, with spineless, venal newspaper executives battling heroic, long-suffering editors. Simon had something to say and he ran roughshod over his characters to say it. He has something to say here too: New Orleans is unique, important and it deserved better. He’s right on all counts. But being right is neither necessary nor sufficient for good television.

"Treme", which premiered on April 11th, can be seen on Sundays at 10pm EST on HBO

(Jon Fasman is the Atlanta correspondent for The Economist and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City".)

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