Several years after its final episode aired, people are still discovering The Wire, a dense, suspenseful and multi-layered crime drama that, thanks to brilliant writing and acting, now stands as one of the best series ever to make it to television. Those of us who became fans could hardly contain our excitement when we heard that its creator, David Simon, would be back at HBO with a series revolving around survivors of Hurricane Katrina that was set and shot in and around New Orleans. We didn’t know what to expect, exactly, but we knew we had high hopes.
For the most part Simon and company delivered, bringing back the strong writing, the subtle, nuanced acting, and the regional setting with meticulous attention to detail that this creative team is known for. The first season of Treme was the kind of television you eventually relax and sink into, enjoying it the way you might enjoy a live concert featuring a line-up of bands you don’t recognize but playing in a genre you love. Rather than waiting for big payoffs or shocking plot twists, we realized that the point was to enjoy the product as a whole. Was it as great as the first season of The Wire? No, it wasn’t. For better or worse, Treme is a study in authenticity and not in high drama.
What struck us immediately when the season first started was how determined Simon and his partner Eric Overmyer were to bring the audience into an unfamiliar universe and make us a part of it. The first couple of episodes were a whirlwind of characters and situations, forcing us to struggle and pay close attention just to figure out what was going on. (Or, on some cases, to head to the internet in search of a plot synopsis.) Antoine (Wendell Pierce) is married to LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), who’s friends with Toni (Melissa Leo), who’s married to Creighton (John Goodman), who hires Davis (Steve Zahn), who dates Janette (Kim Dickens) but has a flirtation with Annie, who’s sleeping with Sonny…
Luckily every musical number provided us with a much-needed break, and it became clear that music wasn’t just going to be a backdrop to the action — it was an integral part of the show. And wow, what a part. The music of Treme was unbelievable, spanning multiple genres and styles and talent levels. We got full orchestras, small brass bands playing in airports, and impromptu duets on the street. We got everything from Davis machine-gunning spoken-word in a neighborhood restaurant, to local legends blowing us away with solo performances, to zydeco bands rocking a packed theater. It’s impossible to name the best numbers because every episode featured at least five or six different musical performances, nearly every one of them performed live rather than shoehorned into a montage or tootling inoffensively in the background. Most of us didn’t recognize names like Coco Robicheaux, John Boutte or Kermit Ruffins before Treme, but we sure know them now.
As the season continued we waited for the storylines to coalesce, to bring the massive cast together around a few big, unifying conflicts. It didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and about halfway through the season it finally became clear that it was not going to happen. I think this was a turning point for viewers, some of whom lost interest in the show. Those who stuck around saw some storylines lead to a natural conclusion, while many others were left open-ended to explore in future seasons.
Some of those storylines worked better than others. We were perpetually fascinated by Antoine’s struggle to get back on his feet — he remained a sympathetic character even while he cheerfully cheated on his girlfriend and drank himself into one bad situation after another. Janette’s struggle to keep her restaurant going, Davis and his stoic gay neighbors gradually winning each other over, and most of all, Cray’s slow descent into depression and the tragic outcome that capped off the season — these all stole our attention every time the narrative jumped to one of their stories.
I say “stole our attention” because, frankly, not all the storylines were as strong as these, and all too often the weak stories took valuable time away from the strong. The story of the Guardians of the Flame felt half-explored. The show avoided the central question: who are these guys, what’s their story and their history? The narration that Creighton so often provided, through classroom lectures or YouTube viral videos, didn’t reach to this far corner of the show’s universe, and since Big Chief Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) rarely crossed paths with any of the other regular characters, it often felt like just one more unnecessary plot arc in a show already packed full of them.
Sonny and Annie were another pair whose story, ultimately, just became less engaging as time went on. Early in the season, the show hinted that perhaps Sonny wasn’t who he said he was — he seemed mysterious and untrustworthy, capable of doing something truly terrible. We wondered if maybe his story about rescuing survivors in the days after the hurricane was a lie, hiding a much darker past. Ultimately, though, Sonny turned out to be your garden variety loser drug addict whose greatest power seemed to be keeping Annie interested in him long after we’d already decided we didn’t care. Lucia Micarelli might have been an unknown quantity, cast primarily for her skill as a violinist, but ultimately Annie wasn’t the weaker of the two characters.
One could make the argument that it is the mundane, everyday aspect of the characters of Treme that is both its best and its worst quality. The show was so authentic that it was easy to forget we were watching actors reading a script, but it also mirrored real life so faithfully in its structure that we didn’t feel like if we missed an episode, we might miss some shocking plot development. In other words, it never made the jump from good show to mustn’t miss, appointment television. Nevertheless, every single episode was strong and enjoyable in its own way, and we’ll be looking forward to next season.