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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>?

Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux in Treme.
Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux in Treme.

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.