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.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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