Fans of The Wire would have been delighted to hear that the creator of the most fashionably name-droppable TV series was working on a new show last year. But it became very apparent – even before David Simon’s new project hit US screens in 2010 – that Treme (Truh-may) was going to be a move to the other end of the entertainment spectrum. Set in New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina, this is an ambling tale of a deeply musical community fighting its way back to its feet. Unlike Simon’s last slice of Americanism, there’s nothing high-voltage about it – in fact half the show’s characters still don’t even have electricity.
If there are any bold comparisons to be made after the just one episode, then Treme seems to have more in common with AMC flagship Mad Men. Like the 60s drama, this one looks set to be an abject lesson in cultural immersion, with roots in subtle character arcs and nuance, rather than tense drama. Both shows also offer starkly unique environments from very fleeting moments in American social history, and like its Sky Atlantic cousin, Treme‘s biting authenticity, novelty and shifted norms seem to fill in for pace at every turn. If whiskey lubricates Mad Men, then music is definitely the driving force of Treme. You certainly won’t be allowed to forget that New Orleans is the home of jazz during this opener – every character has some musical connection and we are even treated to a cameo from Elvis Costello.
We are languidly introduced to an array of Big Easy residents; a down-on-his-luck musician (played by Wendell Pierce one of many faces that viewers might recognise from The Wire), an idealistic DJ, his cafe-owning girlfriend and John Goodman, a vociferous university lecturer based upon real-life blogger Ashley Morris, who campaigned tirelessly against the government’s lack of aid and in so doing, inspired Simon to do this series. In one of the opening scenes Goodman rails against the government and the companies who built the levee which failed with such catastrophic consequences. He ends up wrestling with a British camera crew who claim that jazz has “had its day and that New Orleans cuisine sums up everything that is wrong with American food..”
These people may have a shared adversity, but Treme is neither a call to arms or politically edgy (as Spike Lee’s aftermath piece, When The Levee’s Broke was), instead it is a celebration of rich culture. As such it seems destined to appeal to a very different section of the audience than Simon’s most recent work and from this evidence it could far too slowly for some. Those who do take to it will most likely be drawn in by the experience first and then by the narratives as they progress. But be warned: Treme is as easy-going as most of the inhabitants it depicts.