What's wrong with Treme?

HBO’s Treme returns for a third series later this month, but will anyone watch it?

Treme, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, will return for a third series in the US later this month. The show, which tracks the efforts of New Orleanians (in particular musicians) to rebuild their city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has been celebrated by the majority of TV critics, yet continues to suffered abysmal viewing figures.

On average only 25,000 people tuned in to watch series two on Sky Atlantic in the UK. As with other HBO shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos, the show is expected to fare better in DVD box set sales. But given the pseudo-religious zeal with which devotees consumed and spread The Wire, the question emerges why such a large gulf has opened between “a true gift, a way to finally appreciate and embrace one of our most beloved but neglected cities” (Salon.com) and an audience who are failing to take note.

Treme is slower and noticeably more lush and light of touch than its predecessor. It also has a lot more music. “The music in Treme is like Chinese water torture. It’s death by jazz”, writes The Mirror’s TV critic Jim Shelley, who calls aspects of the show “dull”, “annoying and – characteristically of Simon – elitist”. Simon operates with the same level of affectionate fastidiousness Martin Scorsese does in his documentaries on blues music and the history of cinema. And as ever, his dictum remains: “Fuck the casual viewer.” The former Baltimore Sun journalist clearly admires New Orleans for its ballsy rhythms and carnival culture. “Music – unstructured, unfiltered, spontaneous and sometimes discordant – is, after all, what first made the world take note of New Orleans,” writes USA Today’s Robert Bianco, praising the show’s treatment of the city.

In Treme, Simon and his writing team have utilised real New Orleans stories from the six years following Katrina to form the “spine” of the show and create a “singular and elemental” experience. It is unlike anything else on television in terms of scope and ambition. But even admirers will need to stand back in order to appreciate the show’s overall architecture. The scene-to-scene movement has been criticised as slow and frustrating, cutting away from moments of intense drama to catch up on less pressing matters and keep the whole ensemble busy.

In 2010 the 80-minute pilot attracted a measly 65,000 viewers (a 0.5% share). This despite a press campaign the likes of which The Wire could never have imagined. Yet this is significant and in no way a judgment on the show. Most people had made the decision not to tune in before the show had even started.

Simon has revealed that he and co-creator Eric Overmyer have written story arcs taking Treme’s characters as far as a fourth and maybe even fifth series – covering the BP oil spill, the election of city mayor Mitch Landrieu and historic Super Bowl victory by the New Orleans Saints. “We want David to finish his novel,” HBO’s co-president Richard Plepler said over the summer. “When he tells us he’s finished with his artistic expression of this, that’s when we’re done, and then we’ll turn to him and say, ‘What’s next?’”.

Perhaps the problem arises from using Simon’s other projects, which also include The Corner and Generation Kill, as a measure of his current one. Treme is far better than most of the schlock on TV, and is far more ambitious and insightful than the latest period drama or improbable cop show carefully devised by a committee at the BBC. Treme must grow if it is to survive, but viewers need to persevere in order to enjoy its fruits. They need to give it a chance. The figures reveal most of us still haven’t.

Treme co-creators Eric Overmyer and David Simon get ready for Mardi Gras. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era