If you’re wondering what the best show on television is since The Wire went off the air, here’s a real candidate for you. Treme is the follow-up project from Wire creator David Simon and writer Eric Overmyer, and it’s absolutely first-rate stuff. In my view, The Wire was a five-season masterpiece, and nothing can touch it. But if the first season is any indication, Treme could come close. It’s certainly similar stylistically, and it shares a fair number of actors, writers, and directors from its predecessor. But ultimately the show forges its own kind of awesome.
Season one of Treme paints a portrait of the city of New Orleans, through the eyes of a disparate cast of memorable, loosely connected characters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city is still staggering to its feet, and people are edging their way back into town to rebuild. There’s Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a hand-to-mouth session trombone player scraping by from gig to gig. There’s Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a chef struggling mightily to keep her popular restaurant afloat under an onslaught of massive repair bills and supply problems. Then there’s Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a stubborn local trying to keep traditions alive, even as he takes it upon himself to challenge the corrupt systems keeping undamaged housing projects closed. And then there’s Creighton (John Goodman) and Toni (Melissa Leo), an upper middle class couple on the “Isle of Denial,” whose neighborhood was spared but whose lives are nonetheless intrinsically connected to the city. Cray’s a Tulane English professor and respected writer struggling with his latest novel about the city, while Toni is a hard-working lawyer who spends much of her time bailing the rest of the protagonists out of trouble. Speaking of which, there’s Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a dense but spirited disc jockey whose reckless, zany passion proves infectious to everyone he encounters.
As in The Wire, there are individual story arcs for these great characters: fiscal roller coasters for Antoine and Janette, an artistic struggle for Creighton, relationship issues for street musicians Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman), and Big Chief’s inability to reconnect with his son, a jazz trumpeter named Delmond (Rob Brown), among others. The writers do a brilliant job of weaving the principals in and out of each other’s lives, as a means of showing us the city. But maybe the most prominent throughline involves LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), a tough-as-nails bar owner whose brother went missing in the penal system shortly before Katrina struck. LaDonna’s search for her brother, assisted tenaciously by Toni, is the central narrative thread of the show, and perhaps its metaphorical heart as well. For the show seems, to me at any rate, to be very much about the search for something that’s gone missing, whether it’s a person, a sense of normalcy, a connection between people, a threatened tradition, a muse, or the mysterious spirit of a city, irrevocably altered by a tragedy of unprecedented proportions.
Put that way it sounds rather bleak, but I’ll hasten to add that for all its dark subtext, Treme is also a celebration: of culture, human resilience, and above all music. Throughout, music serves as a unifying force, and a liberating one. There’s nothing more “of the moment,” perhaps, than music, and as Davis points out late in the run, there are moments you get in New Orleans that you can’t get anywhere else. Treme delivers these memorable moments consistently, through its powerful music, poetic dialogue, breathtaking imagery, and inspiring characters. Moments of brightness see the show through its dark journeys.
It’s perhaps not quite as pristine a product as The Wire’s first season. Treme worships the New Orleans music scene almost to a fault, and the show is laced with noticeable stunt-casting, primarily of famous musicians. What it adds to the authenticity of the music, it occasionally detracts from the spell acting-wise. And Treme’s politics are worn (perhaps understandably) a little more on-the-sleeve than The Wire’s, similarly probing but not always as subtle about it.
But these are quibbles. Overall, the season is a terrific achievement, a unique and wholly absorbing season of television. Its story-telling rhythms take some getting used to, but ultimately it all clicks, a whole more than the sum of its funny, sad, joyous, angry, tragic, and beautiful parts. Damn good stuff.