Like most TV critics, I list The Wire among my all-time favourite series, yet I’ve had a difficult time with series creator David Simon’s follow-up, HBO’s Treme. Set in New Orleans in the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Treme is a show I’ve found to be alternatingly brilliant, joyous, horrifying, moving, biting, frustrating and confounding.
Given the deftness with which Simon made his profound points on The Wire, it stands to reason that this is exactly the way he wants it: a show that follows the random rhythms of real life while celebrating a city that is simultaneously a cultural gem of the Western world and, for all intents and purposes, a third-world shambles.
In its third season, Treme remains something of a mixed bag, blending the disparate yet interconnected lives of various characters into a dense Dickensian gumbo that simmers and thickens, becoming more flavourful along the way, yet only occasionally boils over.
Characters in flux
The new season finds all the show’s characters moving on to a certain degree: chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) is working in New York but receives a too-good-to-be-true offer to return home; trombonist Antoine Battiste (Wendell Pierce) flirts with respectability now that he’s a middle school assistant music instructor; trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is basking in the acclaim of the album he recorded with his father, Albert (Clarke Peters), but there’s little time to celebrate when the Big Chief receives a piece of life-altering bad news; bar-owner LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) is a raw nerve ready to snap thanks to living in close quarters with her snooty in-laws; DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) is working on a Katrina-themed musical featuring a who’s who of New Orleans music legends, while his girlfriend Annie (Lucia Micarelli) is finally beginning to see some success with her new band; NOPD detective Terry Colson (David Morse) continues to fight an uphill battle as the city’s crime rate rises; crusading lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) sets her sights on bringing down the city’s dirtiest cop, and joins forces with an out-of-town reporter (Chris Coy) investigating a covered-up murder; suddenly sober Dutch musician Sonny (Michiel Huisman) enjoys a new love but his demons threaten to drag him back down; and recent arrival Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) latches onto a new government-created scam to fix up wrecked houses, but realizes he’ll gain far more in the long run by actually doing a good job. “You don’t have to game the system,” he tells his partner. “It’s already gamed for you.”
Similar themes as ‘The Wire’
Season three finds Simon rooting around in some of the same themes he explored in The Wire (the failure of the public education system, institutionalized corruption) but throws plenty of music in the mix. In fact, Treme has become something of a showcase for the extraordinary musical talent that populates the Crescent City, and the third season boasts appearances by local legends Irma Thomas, Clarence “Frogman” Henry and Fats Domino, singer John Boutte (who sings Treme‘s theme song), guitar-slinging bluesmen Tab Benoit and Anders Osborne, in-his-own-universe Mr. Quintron and numerous others.
For those familiar with New Orleans’ myriad artists, it’s a wonderful shout-out; for everyone else, it’s simply a way to add texture to the show, but works well from either perspective. As in past seasons, Simon integrates the musicians into the storylines, and actually lets them act. Understandably, this yields mixed results, but thankfully none are given any complicated monologues.
A new style of storytelling
After watching the first few episodes of the new season, it became obvious that Simon has no intention of trying to broaden the appeal of Treme to attract more viewers (last season, the show’s average U.S. viewership was well under a million). Rather, Simon is experimenting with a new style of storytelling, letting his plots unfold at their own pace with all the chaos and unpredictability of actual life. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Treme, a scripted series, bears more resemblance to a documentary than most so-called reality shows.
If you gave Treme a shot before but just couldn’t get into it, season three isn’t going to convert you. However, for those willing to dive in and explore, Treme offers a lush, heady journey to the dark and beautiful heart of an iconoclastic city, resulting in an experience that really is unlike anything else on television.
The third season of TREME premieres Sunday, September 23 on HBO Canada