This article is the conclusion of a critical experiment. For the first time in years, I watched an entire season of a David Simon series — Treme, season three — without writing about it while the show was in progress. I did this because of Simon’s much-debated insistence that the TV recap culture prizes the parts over the whole and does a disservice to shows that are meant to be considered in totality, like a novel. (Simon’s comments are here and here; my response is here.) “If television reviews could be done at the end of each season, they could say more and do more,” he told my fellow TV critic Alan Sepinwall.
Was he right? I hope so. Here goes.
Co-created by Simon and Eric Overmyer, Treme is one of the subtlest, most life-affirming, and defiantly life-size dramas on TV: a crazy quilt of modern urban life that’s not afraid of the lyrical interlude, the pregnant pause or the unresolved emotion. Unfortunately, those same qualities explain why it has remained a best-kept secret for three seasons and is being hustled off HBO’s schedule rather unceremoniously. (The cable channel green-lit a truncated fourth and final season, with just five episodes instead of the standard ten.) Aside from a couple of ongoing subplots — LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) slowly recovering from a rape in season two, and New Orleans police officer Terry Colson battling corruption and visiting the occasional murder scene — Treme lacks the pulpy action/crime hooks that power other critically acclaimed cable dramas. And unlike its partner-in-dramatic-rigor, Mad Men, it eschews glamour and doesn’t give us any clearly defined main characters to latch onto and fantasize about.
It’s not just an ensemble show, it’s a stubbornly democratic one. It settled on particular characters, some more emotionally accessible than others (I’m looking at you, Sonny, with your mute, pained expressions), and insisted that we consider all of them equally important and valuable, even if they’re going through uneventful patches or acting like ninnies. As in the films of Robert Altman — a major inspiration on Simon’s career — Treme believes that some of the most profound realizations and changes happen in between the “big” moments, often inside people’s minds, and that oftentimes these shifts can’t be articulated without sounding like self-serving lies or greeting-card homilies. That said, if you watch a whole season of Treme in a couple of chunks instead of piecemeal, as I did this year, then let it sit for a few days, certain themes emerge and coalesce into — well, not a statement, exactly; maybe take is a better word: a take on cities and the people who inhabit them.
“I just feel like, at this point in my life, I want to have more control.” Music geek and would-be composer Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) says that in episode eight, confiding his fears to his indulgent Aunt Mimi (Elizabeth Ashley), who radically downsized his musical about the city after Katrina. The line comes close to summing up season three, to the extent that one can sum up a deliberately sprawling, patchwork show with so many narrative ellipses. So many Treme characters are struggling to control lives that seem out-of-control. This was true in seasons one and two as well, but what makes this season different than the others — and in some ways more surprising and profound — is the dawning realization that the 2005 flood didn’t cause every single problem in these characters’ lives, or in New Orleans as a whole.
As Treme’s timeline unfurls — this season was set from fall 2007 through spring 2008 — and the visceral shock of the event subsides, we start to see Katrina as an especially huge metaphor for unforeseen disaster of every sort. Katrina was Katrina. But the murder of Harley (Steve Earle) in season two was Katrina, too — a traumatic event that spurred his worshipful young pupil, Annie (Lucia Micarelli), to reinvent herself as a singer-songwriter and roots rock bandleader. LaDonna’s rape and the subsequent torching of her bar (part of a witness intimidation gambit by a friend of LaDonna’s rapist) were two more little Katrinas. Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) receiving a cancer diagnosis was yet another little Katrina. Every day, every week, every month, someone is experiencing a Katrina, a 9/11, a Titanic, a Great Chicago Fire: a giant, if personal disaster that affects the tight “community” that is your family, social circle, or neighborhood. The experiential process is always the same: the five stages of grief plus a period of confusion, wandering, and borderline madness. The best-case scenario is you come through on the other side with a bit more wisdom, and maybe a new set of objectives. The worst-case scenario is you destroy yourself, as Michiel Huisman’s drug-addicted musician Sonny almost did. (Sonny’s sobriety and courtship/marriage this season were unexpectedly gratifying; he was such a sullen pill in the first two seasons that I never imagined I’d care about him as much as I eventually did — which proves Simon right, at least in this case.) Or maybe you just muddle through without truly understanding what’s happening or not happening inside you. That’s an accurate description of every Treme character, come to think of it — even self-mythologizing chatterboxes such as Antoine and Davis.
There was also a sense that, even as Katrina created a collective, very real epiphany within and without New Orleans – a realization that the city was great, and worth rebuilding – it also inspired hucksters to trade on sentiment and stuff their pockets with loot. Season three served up several parallel subplots that showed the Haves conspiring to purge New Orleans of its Have-Nots. My favorites involved LaDonna. In the first half of season one, she was made to feel like a working-class lout by her husband’s well-off family, and eventually moved out and returned to New Orleans. In the back half of the season, the episodes implicitly contrasted LaDonna’s soon-to-be-torched neighborhood bar (an authentic community gathering spot) against the ritzy restaurant fronted by chef Janette Desautel and promoted in a Today segment with Al Roker — a place that Janette, rebelling against her franchise-crazy patron, compared to Old Spaghetti Warehouse.
The phrase “In every crisis, an opportunity” definitely applies to Jon Seda’s glad-handing builder Nelson Hidalgo. This season, he got involved in the Congo Square jazz center project, a neighborhood renovation/demolition scam, and a push to demolish public housing. All three of these real-estate story lines drew on news reports and public debates from 2007–2008, in which “unsafe” and “decaying” became dog-whistle code for “places where poor black people live.” Refreshingly, however, Nelson and his business buddies were not depicted as mustache-twirling capitalist bigots, but as businessmen who truly loved New Orleans’s food, music, architecture, and multiethnic heritage, but knew a moneymaking deal when they saw it.
These operators rarely acknowledged that, in some people’s eyes, they were agents of greed who were going to destroy, or at least commodify, what was left of pre-flood New Orleans — that their business dealings might adversely effect the neighborhood restaurants and nightclubs where they entertained clients. In fact, the show went out of its way to present a self-serving but valid alternative point of view: that, to quote Bugs Bunny, progress must pro-gress. Every city tears itself down and builds itself up again, flood or no flood; to deny this was to deny mortality itself. Albert and his jazz trumpeter son Delmond (Rob Brown) were rightly suspicious of Nelson and his buddies’ motives in the Congo Square project, and of the project itself; it sounded like a tourist-bait “destination” like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a place where living art goes to die and be mummified. But season three also showed us an alternative to a commercially driven civic heritage project like Congo Square, and it wasn’t pretty: all those vacant lots and crumbling historic houses that Davis showed tourists during his depressing musical history tours. There’s an un-discussed third way, to be sure, but the city’s construction economy just isn’t equipped to imagine it.
There, again, we got the sense that Katrina didn’t create every problem, but that perhaps it revealed them. In the weeks after the hurricane, some pundits said that the hurricane laid bare flaws that had dogged New Orleans for decades: a decaying infrastructure, underfunded social services, a corrupt police force, and an endemic culture of corruption that allowed public officials and shady businesspeople to line their pockets with public funds while pretending to care about the city’s greater good. Simon and Overmyer and their writing staff have teased out these ideas from the very start of Treme, but foregrounded them most vividly in season three. The parallel stories of anguished good cop Terry Colson (David Morse) and civil rights attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) showed how hard it is to go against the Way Things Are Done, even when everyone involved admits that the system is rotten to the core. The police corruption stories subtly echoed the real-estate stories, especially in scenes that showed characters taking unseemly pride in “traditions” that were really just crimes.
I realize that, as I write this, one theme or notion is bleeding into another, but that’s true to the spirit of Treme, which insists on the interconnectedness of all people, places, and stories. Simon, Overmeyer, and company avoid the sort of obvious, Fiction Writing 101 parallelism that often pops up on TV dramas, even the good ones. We may sense a kinship between one character’s subplot and another’s, but their placement within an episode containing so many other subplots prevents them from seeming too schematic. It’s never A equals B. It’s looser and more mysterious than that: A equals B, but then A turns into C and B turns into D without your realizing it, and suddenly you’re looking at a different analogy being drawn with some of the same characters. Terry, Toni, and LaDonna are subjected to intimidation by wrongdoers trying to evade punishment; Annie and Antoine and Davis struggle with the anxiety of artistic influence; LaDonna and Albert both cope with the psychological aftermath of bodily invasion (by sexual assault and cancer, respectively): But the show never says, “Hey, look, these characters are in exactly the same predicament!” because they aren’t; no two people ever are. All they have in common is their humanity.
Besides, boldfacing and underlining isn’t Simon’s style. In his TV dramas, a scene will often cut immediately before a character makes a major decision, figuring that you already know what he or she did because you’ve been watching the show and know them by now. And when an episode’s director drives an idea home by shooting a scene in a particular way, Treme never congratulates itself on being clever. When, in the Mardi Gras episode, the Lambreaux family sits mutely, watching a Katrina documentary while sewing costumes, we don’t need a line telling us that they’re reliving their experience while simultaneously realizing how far away it now seems. It’s all in their eyes, in their anguished silence, and in the way that Albert suddenly pushes his chair out, stands up and turns away from the screen. When, in the season finale, the camera follows major characters around the nightclub floor at LaDonna’s benefit concert, you understand why the scene is done in one very long take, jumping from character to character as if connecting the dots, even if you’ve never seen a Robert Altman movie or taken a film studies course, because the show’s philosophy has always been plain to see, and its creators know you get it. This is New Orleans. This is Treme. It’s all connected.
Would I have had the same reactions if I’d been writing about Treme every week, or every other week? I don’t know. I definitely would have had allergic reactions to particular subplots and moments when they first turned up: for example, LaDonna being harassed during the trial, and Sonny briefly backsliding into drugs. The former initially seemed like an attempt to add jeopardy to a essentially interior, private journey, while Sonny’s lapse felt like standard TV (and real-world) addict behavior, not especially illuminating. But they both paid off in very satisfying ways. The hung jury at the rape trial set up one of Treme’s grimmest cosmic jokes: The intimidation and the arson were unnecessary. Sonny’s relapse led to that marvelous scene of him attending a sobriety meeting (Lambda chapter!) during Mardi Gras. The climactic close-up of Sonny sitting in the meeting while boozy revelers marched past the window behind him was hilarious and inspiring. If he can keep clean in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, it means he’s stronger than anyone, including Sonny, ever imagined.
These epiphanies and others would have occurred in time because they’re built into the season’s master narrative. But Simon is still right to suggest that you can’t always judge the usefulness of a plot point until you’ve reached the end of a story. Plus, if nothing else, coming in at the end of a season and taking the broad view can spare a writer the indignity of making an incorrect prognostication or a foolish condemnation, then having to eat humble pie later. I still don’t think there’s an inherently wrong way to watch or write about series TV, but in the case of a drama like Treme, recollection in tranquility makes sense. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Advantage: Simon.