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Treme: Season One

by on March 26, 2011
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As a critic, it is unfair to grade something based upon the artist’s last project. It should be looked at on its own. Yet as an admirer of the artist, of course, I want to take the last project into consideration. It’s not just about seeing individuals’ shows and films, but seeing how the evolution and experience has affected the artist.

David Simon is one of the greatest artists working today, and it’s funny because I don’t know how much he would identify himself as an artist. He worked the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun for many years. From that experience he wrote the incredible book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” which was later adapted into the long-running NBC series.

Simon later adapted his second book, “The Corner,” into an HBO miniseries. This was seen as the test run for what is now seen as his opus: “The Wire.” Seen as the greatest television show in the history of the medium by many critics — this one included — Simon was able to forgo a lot of familiar writing tactics to let his journalistic sense tell the greater story. It was a brilliant expose of Baltimore and the institutions that fail its people. It feels like a grand Greek tragedy or a Victorian novel instead of a cop show.

After five years, “The Wire” ended on its own terms. Simon made the impressive Iraq miniseries called “Generation Kill,” but “Treme” was his first real return to a television show. Instead of his of hometown of Baltimore, “Treme” is set in New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. A few actors from “The Wire” are present, like Wendell Pierce (Bunk) and Clarke Peters (Lester Freeman). The look of the show feels different, but it’s also different in other ways.

In the city, there is a lot of anger. People are mad at the government for not opening up the projects so people can come home. People are made at George W. Bush. People are mad at FEMA. Despite all that anger, there is a different tone with the show. “Hopeful” is too strong of a word, but the characters show such love toward their city they all wish it can return to the place they know.

A lot of that is conveyed through the show’s use of music. Pierce plays Antoine, a struggling trombone player who seems to have a baby momma in every neighborhood. He always has to plead with taxi drivers to let him pay them later and he is always looking for any gig that will pay. The music is not just what he’s best at, but it’s what inspires his soul.

The music of the show is enriched with the city’s history and its characters longing for a better tomorrow. Steve Zahn plays Davis, a likable ne’er-do-well who adores the independent music scene. Peters has recently returned home and desperately wants to put his Indian band back together despite the hardships of the city. Sonny and Annie are street performers, one of whom may be too talented to stay on the streets.

There are plenty of storylines that aren’t directly part of the music. Melissa Leo plays a lawyer working with Khandi Alexander, who is trying to find her brother who has not been seen since the flood. Kim Dickens is trying to operate her restaurant despite the struggling economy. John Goodman is an English teacher who uses YouTube to rant with profanity about the hard times of the city.

The show captures a time and a culture with expertise and authority. The characters in a Simon show move so organically it feels like a documentary in which subjects somehow don’t notice the cameras. To step into their lives like this and form this greater understanding can only be accomplished with smart people at the show’s core. Once the community feels artificial, the emotional connection is lessened.

There are so many storylines that it would be weirder if they didn’t cross every once in awhile. There is warmth when they do. It’s like having different friends of yours meet. To meet friends in this circumstance is such a fascinating moment in time. There aren’t any flashbacks to the city they all remember. It all starts when they are all shaken up, and they don’t know what will happen next. The only thing they can really do is try to rebuild and play the music to soothe themselves.

Is it fair to compare this to “The Wire”? Absolutely not. This is an amazing show on its own. It isn’t the masterpiece that “The Wire” turned out to be, but looking back, it all seems to fit. There are many reasons why that show and all of Simon’s shows worked. They could never have tackled any of their ambitious themes if we didn’t care about the characters who were affected by the events that occurred. With “Treme,” there isn’t the complex plot of a drug takedown. Instead, it’s a new set of characters that immediately feel rich as they all work on moving forward. It’s only been 10 episodes with them, but I’m ready to spend more time with them. Can they recapture what they have lost or work towards something new and better than before? Hopefully.

There aren’t too many extras, but they have the right focus. There are plenty of commentary tracks about the episodes and the music. There is a special feature devoted to teaching more about the songs featured in the episodes. It’s like those radio stations that can tell you the name of the song and artist while you’re listening. It’s more about the show and the music than them praising themselves.

Season: 4.5 Yaps (Can grow on me more to a 5)
Extras: 4 Yaps