I'm posting this rant, which appears in tomorrow's paper, today mainly because we don't yet have the ability to schedule posts and I won't remember to post it on Sunday
Like seemingly every other writer/blogger and no one else, I live for David Simon TV shows. With perhaps unsurpassed attention to documentary detail, a rare command of episodic drama and an unwavering moral vision, Simon's changed my standard for good TV. I've been wholly engrossed in everything in which he's been involved: network drama “Homicide: Life on the Streets”; the under-appreciated HBO miniseries “The Corner” and “Generation Kill”; and, of course, the apotheosis of the formula outlined above, “The Wire,” the — let's all say it together — “greatest TV show ever.”
“The Wire” could've been confused for an HBO-style police procedural in its first season, but it evolved, with plotlines woven through politics and public schools and a mostly black underclass, into a densely plotted drama the New York Times called, aptly, “Dickensian,” a narrative polemic against the oppressive power of institutions over individuals.
Simon promised before the premiere of “Treme,” his latest series for HBO, that despite a post-Katrina New Orleans setting, he wouldn't follow the same bleak path. Rather, “Treme” would, and I'm paraphrasing here, celebrate the resiliency of the people and culture of New Orleans. Five episodes into the series, and he's been true to his word.
The 10 characters — a collection of musicians, bar and restaurant owners, DJs, academics and advocates — all of whom live and work in the neighborhood that gives the show its name, face the sort of trials you'd expect after a devastating hurricane: They are homeless, jobless, struggling to pay bills, searching for loved ones. But for just about all of them, their means of recourse involves, at least in part, reveling in New Orleans culture. In last week's episode, former DJ Davis McAlary (played with goofy charisma by Steve Zahn) assembled a crack team of local musicians to back him in a campaign/protest song about policy failings. In the first episode, a contractor and Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) returns to the city to get his tribe and its elaborate costumes in order in time for the celebration.
After five episodes, I'm committed. I'll definitely see the season through. But I wonder if “Treme” is fatally flawed. The characterization and acting, particularly by the brilliant Khandi Alexander as a bar owner searching for her missing brother, is first rate. And the sense of place, presented by all indications with anthropological accuracy, is wholly engrossing. But a docudrama needs drama, and so far “Treme” has little to none. Katrina and the mire of bad policy that followed in its wake provide an obvious foil to all the characters, but faceless enemies don't make great TV. So far, most of the characters talk a righteous anger that comes across like a David Simon interview.
“The Wire” was such a subtle critique of institutional oppression because it dealt in metaphor, in plots that, on the surface level, followed familiar narratives. But Katrina can't be approached with metaphor. Everyone knows it was the colossal American fuck-up of the 21st century. Which means that as much as we agree with professor Creighton Bernette's (John Goodman) YouTube rants, we've heard them or seen them before, and not that long ago.
Perhaps even more problematic, for a show that steps waist-deep into the culture of New Orleans to such a degree that it can seem like a hip convention and visitor's bureau ad, “Treme” also manages to present the insular nature of New Orleans in a way that can sometimes make you feel bad for not knowing what's up. And that's a combination I suspect the casual viewer won't abide.
Lastly, and this is something I'm surprised bothers me, but “Treme” is too besotted with New Orleans music. It's obviously central to the show — and it's been uniformly great — but two to three full songs performed live, without any sort of montage, derail what little drama there is in a 50-minute show.
But again, “The Wire” started out as just another cop show. David Simon's shown before that he's the master of the long game.