Treme is a show really quite unlike anything else on television. Its closest relative is likely David Simon’s other career defining masterpiece, The Wire, but even then, such a comparison isn’t quite apt. A show like Treme could never have existed on anything other than HBO, their support of truly great unconventional drama admirable, standing strong even in the face of continually plummeting ratings. Thus far, across two seasons, it has been the slowest of slow burners, a paradoxical tale of everything and nothing, a great novel in motion. All of these things continued to ring true as it wrapped up its excellent third season.
Treme is a sprawling look at the various facets of New Orleans life in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Like practically all of Simon’s previous work in television, the overriding themes here are derived from societal critique, the show offering a window into the lives of people from every imaginable niche. Not just businessmen, cops, and lawyers but musicians busking to survive, cooks feeding their community, and Mardi Gra Chiefs refusing to let the destruction dampen their festive spirits. These are ordinary people just trying to get by, never made out to be anything more. Things are presented as they are, in the most tender and gentle way and rarely are expected character archetypes resorted to. This show is a flurry of jubilant cultural celebration, treating its ensemble with the utmost respect, no matter who they are or where they come from.
A common criticism of shows which further their overarching narratives at a glacial pace, is that ‘nothing ever happens’. In one sense this is absolutely true but in another, totally false. Perhaps this year’s Mardi Gras check in episode, ‘Promised Land’, the seventh of the season, epitomizes this philosophy most brazenly. It’s a full hour and ten minutes (gotta love HBO’s complete lack of running time restrictions) of locals getting wonderfully wasted and not more else. With characters so well realised, dialogue so authentic, and scenes so gloriously shot, it just doesn’t matter that much of the show’s running time is spent engaging in what could be perceived as mundane. It is impossible not to become fully immersed in what is one of the most convincingly assembled pieces of fiction ever to be captured on film. And when moments of genuine dramatic gravitas are finally unleashed they hit that much harder, with an added weight, significance, and permanence very rarely seen in serialised dramas.
This season for the most part, focused on adding more depth to existing characters rather than introducing new ones, an understandable decision considering the already large ensemble cast. Treme tends to design its thematic explorations around pairs or groups of characters, who often have no direct connection, making it a thrill when conversion does occur. A great example this year was when bar owner LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) and Big Chief Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) were naturally drawn towards one another as a result of their shared dark circumstances, a series of horrible life-altering setbacks completely out of their control. This new relationship created some of the season’s most riveting and touching scenes, scenes defined by an application of Sorkin snappiness to Simon’s ultra-realistic dialogue.
Toni (Melissa Leo) and Terry (David Morse) continued their quest to expose corruption in the police force along with newcomer journalist L.P. Everett (Chris Coy), based on real life reporter A.C. Thompson. The only new addition to the main cast this year, his preference for the delightfully stereotypically named metal bands ‘Goatwhore” and ‘Eyehategod’ allowed the show to highlight a different musical avenue of New Orleans, one which was previously almost exclusively focused on the jazz scene.
Throughout any episode, a good few minutes are dedicated to explicitly highlighting the music, with the performances often recorded live and featuring real local musicians. Accusations of style over substance could easily be launched but that would be missing the point; the musical interludes further integrate the viewer in this fascinating culture and offer a greater understanding of its complicated souls. To see the same reverence given to a totally different genre reaffirmed the notion that this is a show built with equality in storytelling as one its prime directives.
There were many other compelling plot threads throughout the season, nearly all of which came to fruition satisfactorily, from Janette’s (Kim Dickens) re-entering the restaurant business to Antoine’s (Wendell Pierce) newfound love of teaching. The only real weak link in the chain was Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Davis’ (Steve Zahn ) arc, which was a little tedious and unbelievable. Only a minor blemish however, on an otherwise as-close-to-perfection-as-humanly-possible season of television.
Next year will mark Treme’s fourth and final season. It’s only five episodes long but once again, HBO must be given credit for allowing it to finish with the dignity it deserves. Like The Wire, Treme hasn’t been properly recognised by any of the major industry awards and similarly, will hopefully gain a cult following in the years after having finished airing. Don’t stay away for too long, Simon; TV needs you in order to maintain this golden age.