An appreciation of Treme

Treme returned to the HBO schedule last night, giving me a new reason to look forward to Sunday night television. This is the show's third season, and it was announced today that its fourth half-season will be its last.

This David Simon show about New Orleans in the aftermath of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has never gained the viewership of HBO's most popular series such as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, so I guess, in a way, it will be lucky to last three-and-a-half seasons, but, as one who has come to love the series, I see its short run as a shame and just another indictment of the taste of the American television viewing public.

I admit that it took me a while to get into it also. It's a show with a lot of different and very diverse characters. The story lines attempt to do justice to each of them and so we get lots of scenes of just a minute or so of exposition for each story as the camera jumps back and forth among the characters. I think it is easier for a television show to build an audience if there is one central character on which the viewers can focus - think of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos - but, in this show, the central character really is the city of New Orleans and that's a bit harder for an audience to grasp. In this regard, Treme has been compared to David Simon's other highly acclaimed show that focused on a city (Baltimore) as the main character, The Wire, a series which I still haven't watched but I still intend to one of these days.

The denizens of New Orleans who prowl the streets, or more accurately, sashay down the streets of the series are presented as mostly artistic iconoclasts who pursue their own unique visions. Whether it is a jazz musician struggling to bring his art to a new audience or a chef who just wants to express herself through the food she cooks or a club musician/assistant high school band director trying to support his family while fulfilling his own need for expression or even a civil rights lawyer or an incorruptible policeman trying to bring justice to their community, they all are, in their own ways, artists and lovers of the artistic life. And art, as we know, can sometimes be messy and hard to grasp, and so the series struggles to be understood and appreciated even after two years.

The truth is, it probably isn't a series for everybody and it probably was never going to gain a gigantic audience. New Orleans, in the time of Katrina, is still somewhat of an open wound on the American psyche and perhaps we don't want to be reminded that we failed the citizens of that city in so many ways in the aftermath of the storm. But this show does not present those citizens as merely victims. No, they are strong. They are survivors. In spite of all the hardships which Nature and an incompetent government threw at them in those years, they were determined to rebuild their lives and to rebuild their city and to never abandon their town. They were also determined to live their lives with joy, with a jazz soundtrack accompanying them.

That joy is the essence of the indomitable spirit of Treme, the community and the series. It's why this show is one of my TV watching pleasures and why I will be looking forward to Sunday nights for the next several weeks.  


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