Written by David Simon, the person behind the acclaimed series, The Wire, Treme is a 10-part HBO series that dramatises the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the people of New Orleans — specifically in that district known as the Treme — and it is so good that it bears repeated viewing.
Like many contemporary television dramas, the story slowly unwinds by following disparate characters doing their thing, so that it is fair to say that it is more a show of subplots than a central narrative, a series of intertwining stories where the lives of the characters crisscross, sometimes meaningfully, sometimes tangentially, as they get on with rebuilding their homes, their city, their lives after the disaster of Katrina.
It is a wonderful form of storytelling that is perfect for this sort of long-form drama.
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The show is broadly political, commenting through the stories on the New Orleans police department, the (mal)administration of George W. Bush and the local New Orleans government. But the politics is not the point and is never allowed to dominate.
What the series does brilliantly is represent the broad range of cultures that make New Orleans the place of legend that it is. Whether it is black jazz musicians, the Cajuns, the Mardi Gras Indians, the long-time white residents, whoever, the sheer diversity of the city seeps into the fabric of the show so that you are left with this very satisfying representation of a city loosely united by a shared tragedy.
The ensemble cast are stunningly good and some faces will be familiar from Simon’s other productions.
Of course, the thread that stitches it all together is the music. Like a walk around New Orleans itself, you cannot go far in the show without hearing people play. Never over-used, the music is deployed with skill and always with a fine regard to the needs of the narrative.
This is aided and abetted by the fact that many of the key characters are in fact musicians, so we see them jamming and busking, scamming for work, recording, or just belting out a tune for the hell of it. Several well-known musicians show up in the program, too, and it is fun to spot an Elvis Costello, a Steve Earle or a Alain Toussaint, for instance.
There are many scenes of exquisite beauty in this epic production, individual moments that, even by themselves, make the hairs on your arms stand up. The moment when Big Chief Lambreaux gives his jazz-musician son a lesson in how to play swing; a exchange between trombone player Antoine Batiste and another musician as they discuss “who’s going home” as they prepare to play a funeral parade; another when his ex-wife, LaDonna, finally lets go as she marches in the second line of a different funeral; the confrontation between two Indian tribes as they perform in the night-darkened streets.
If there is a better television drama than this, David Simon hasn’t made it yet.
The details: The first season of Treme aired on Showcase earlier this year and is available in all the usual (illegal) download spots. A DVD set is due for release later this year.