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What's wrong with Treme?

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

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

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.