I have never been to New Orleans, and while I would like to go there, it is unlikely I’ll be traveling to the United States in the next couple of years. As a result, I cannot even begin to say whether Treme, David Simon’s four-season HBO series, delivered an accurate depiction of the city. More than that, I’m definitely not entitled to claiming that I care about New Orleans based on having watched a TV series. But I can say that I have come to love the series’ version of New Orleans – and that’s due in no small part to Simon’s unique brand of storytelling.
Simon was already unconventional in his storytelling when he did The Wire, his long-form story about Baltimore that with each season kept expanding like an onion, revealing one layer after another of social strata and systemic dysfunction. Nonetheless, The Wire still structured its portrait of an American city around storylines: the police investigation into Avon Barksdale’s criminal organisation, the death of thirteen young women suffocated in a freight container, the story of four eight-graders trying to make their way in a place that doesn’t leave them with much of a perspective. These stories were made up of a patchwork of scenes and incidences, but they still gave The Wire a sense of direction that comforted audiences more used to conventional TV storytelling.
Treme went further in de-emphasising traditional storytelling with a beginning, a middle and an end: any single episode would give an unwary viewer the impression that Simon had decided to forgo any sense of direction altogether. Here there’s a street musician drug addict and his violinist girlfriend, there’s a stubborn old man squabbling with his children and co-workers. We get a glimpse of a bar owner and a civil rights lawyer, a philandering trombone player, a chef, a radio DJ, an English professor moonlighting as a YouTube vlogger railing against governmental dysfunction. How do these fit together? What do they add up to? There were strands of plot and backstory that connected these characters – Antoine, the trombone player, was the ex-husband of bar owner LaDonna, who in turn was working with the lawyer Toni, hoping to find out what had happened to her missing brother. All in all, though, Treme was one of the most impressionistic stories on TV, a picture made up of many different dots.
The canvas for all of this, what held it all together, wasn’t plot, it was place. More specifically, it was post-Katrina New Orleans, a city that had been dealt a nearly fatal blow by natural disaster and then left bleeding and battered by a federal government that simply didn’t care enough. A city of contrasts, of music, food and life, but also a place riddled with corruption and poverty, where crimes went uninvestigated and unsolved – sometimes because they’d been abetted or even committed by police officers. A place where your house might be rebuilt by a government programme one day and demolished the next because both of these made someone else a buck, and you didn’t have a say in either. A city reminiscent at times of a play by Samuel Beckett, both in its absurd comedy and its abject tragedy.
While the place gave Treme its body, though, its characters gave it a heart: the stories that David Simon tells are almost always about society and its systems, especially when they break down through neglect, incompetence and greed, but they come to life through living, breathing characters. Simon had already had a fantastic cast when he did The Wire, but with Treme he topped himself, with a cast that included the likes of Clarke Peters, Khandi Alexander, John Goodman, Wendell Pierce and Melissa Leo. Not all of the characters were immediately likeable, some were bristly, standoffish or even obnoxious at first, but they all cared deeply about their New Orleans. And that love for the place became infectious.
Treme‘s New Orleans wasn’t a fairytale, Disneyworld take on the city; like its characters it was a place that could drive you mad or break your heart with the ways in which it was fundamentally broken, but it had so much to offer in return for your love, in particular its music and its cuisine. It’d be easy to look at Treme and think that Simon was supremely self-indulgent in how each episode could spend much of its running time looking in on this restaurant and that snack bar, stopping by a jazz concert here and a second line or Mardi Gras Indians’ rehearsal. At a glance it could even come across as easily distracted, especially in its last two seasons, where individual scenes might give glimpses of less than a minute into the lives of all the characters – for those trained on more straightforward storytelling, Treme could seem downright willful in how a murder investigation or a civil rights case into unlawful deaths in custody were given the same weight and space as Davis MacAlary’s self-righteous railing against the windmills of gentrification, Antoine hung over at high school band practice, Chef Jeanette putting the finishing touches on one of her dishes or Big Chief Albert sewing beads onto his costume in preparation for Mardi Gras.
Treme raged against the dying of the light in a city bleeding from wounds both big and small, it celebrated life. It was stubborn, anarchic, subtle, loud, it roared with anger and burst with love and joy. I will miss Treme.