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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism