Forget The Wire – is Treme doomed to be a forgotten masterpiece?

David Simon's New Orleans-based drama <em>Treme</em> has a brilliant sense of narrative, isn't showy, and defies easy definition. So why isn't it as famous as <em>The Wire</em>?

No Treme spoilers contained within, very mild spoilers for The Wire.

Treme ran for thirty six episodes in four seasons from 2010 to 2013, concluding in late December. It is a series about the lives of people in New Orleans dealing with life there after the floods. Not everybody is a native, not everybody stays in the city all the time. The characters come from a variety of backgrounds and have a variety of jobs. There is a lot of music of pretty much every sort. That is about as succinct a description of the series as I can manage. Even having watched it and loved it, I still struggle to explain what it is actually about. The subjects, the themes and even the tone fluctuate unpredictably and pinning it down is never easy. Perhaps the best description of it is as a historical drama, despite being set less than a decade ago.

Treme was created by David Simon and shares many of the creative forces behind The Wire, with writers such as Eric Overmyer, George Palacanos and David Mills making the jump from Baltimore to New Orleans. Despite sharing some writing personnel and holding true to the David Simon maxim of “Fuck the Average Viewer” the differences between the shows are somewhat marked.

Firstly The Wire is actually quite easy to define; it’s a cop show. It’s not like other cop shows, but it is still a cop show. The presence of police officers and the narrative thread of investigating crimes mean that we sort of know what we are getting into with it. Even as the series moves into other areas of city life that thread remains. For Treme there is no equivalent definition, however vague. Treme is an extremely unfocused show with characters from very different worlds, experiencing life in very different tones. While the theme of following the money from the drug corners lead The Wire all over the city Treme flits between people and places as though Google Maps had a shuffle button.

This inability for the show to be easily defined hurts its appeal somewhat, because no matter how much we all claim to love originality – when we are actually confronted by something new, something that offers few recognisable features to cling to, it is a challenge. With The Wire we saw this in season two, the story of the longshoremen, unions and smugglers was unfamiliar and to some it appeared to jar with the first and later seasons. Even if a series is going to confound expectations it can still benefit viewers to have expectations at first. Treme is like that the whole way through, unfamiliar and always defying attempts to categorise and file it.

This in some ways might explain why Treme did not simply pick up the same audience as The Wire and run with it. No matter how unusual The Wire was people will always love a cop show. Treme has never had that immediacy, but this does not make it a lesser show. It does however make it much harder to follow. This is doubly true if, like me, you’re not a big music fan. I could rave about the fact that the cast are all spectacularly good and I could babble for hours about the way that the show can say more in a single wordless moment than most series ever manage in their entire runs, but as for the music, knowing as little about it as I do, it leaves me cold. But I still love the show.

For everything that Treme has which makes it harder to engage with at first, it compensates by being stronger in some important ways. For example Treme enjoys a greater sense of narrative completeness than The Wire. The Wire has an ending set up at the end of season three but it carries on for another two seasons. The fourth is strong but the fifth is notably the weakest, creating the sense that, while leaping to great heights at its peak the series failed to stick the landing. Treme by contrast concludes at its own pace, season four is much shorter than the others and tidies up the loose ends without adding new main characters or getting into new business.

Secondly Treme is less showy than The Wire. The Wire has a comparable story structure to a Greek tragedy, the heroes do their thing and the gods, or the various institutions in the case of The Wire, beat them down and repeat the cycle with new pawns. But for the characters to be challenging the conventions, for them to be worthy of being slapped by into line by the gods in the first place, they must be heroes. From Avon the master criminal to Ziggy the ultimate screw up there are few characters without some extraordinary virtue or flaw. This means that the main characters are often more representative than they are relatable. Treme by contrast is a series populated by more low key characters, as befitting the lower stakes of the series. The characters of Treme are dealing in local matters and their own affairs, things that are significant to their lives and the lives of the people of the city, but to an outsider there are few recognisably powerful figures in the series. No kingpins, no assassins, no master detectives.

This difference in the power of the characters manifests itself quite brutally in the violence of Treme. While The Wire largely contents itself with the drugs trade and those involved in it, Treme portrays the lives of people just trying to get by. New Orleans is a city with many of the problems of Baltimore, but they are not the focus here. In Treme we see the world through the eyes of those above the underclass, to various extents, above the worst of it, but not shielded from it. The way that violence reaches into their lives has a shocking, random quality. There is none of the desensitisation that permeates the characters of West Baltimore, the people of Treme have a vulnerability about them, a sense about them that when bad things happen they bite much harder for that.

This vulnerability is compounded by the portrayal of the New Orleans Police Department. From David Simon’s work as an author and journalist, particularly his book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, it is clear that, for all of his many concerns about the state of the American city and society as a whole, he is somewhat in love with the idea of the homicide detective. We see that in The Wire but not Treme, where the New Orleans Police Department, even the homicide division, are part of the problem, aiding and abetting the corruption which is painted as almost being as much a part of the place as the music.

All this is not to say that Treme does not have problems. Any given viewer will generally find one character or clump of characters that don’t interest them very much. This seems to vary depending on who you ask, which feels like a consequence of personal tastes rather than bad writing. Also the lack of a Marlo Stanfield or Bill Rawls to personify of all that is wrong with their respective worlds can leave things feeling unchallenging. There is no villain and we see characters fighting their battles internally, often over what seem like trifling matters compared to bodies in vacant houses or thirteen Jane Does in a shipping container. Persistence with the series does pay off, the development and growth of the characters feels almost tangible, even if it is not always transformative, but it tests the patience hard.

Treme is not as strident as The Wire, it is not so forceful. When David Simon spoke recently about “Two Americas” it was still The Wire not Treme that he referenced, though either could be applicable. In a way it feels like Treme has been allowed to pass unnoticed, particularly in the UK, overlooked amid the likes of Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey and the his and hers Sherlock Holmes modernisations. In a country that struggles to produce TV of its own that isn’t about doctors, cops or historical toffs this is the sort of thing we could use more of. Treme will stand the test of time, it will endure to be watched and enjoyed years from now; but you could get crushed by fifty million stampeding Romanians tomorrow, so you probably ought to watch it soon.

Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux in Treme.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.