The premiere episode of Treme begins with white words on a black screen. First, they establish that the series takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Then comes the critical information about timing: “Three Months After.” The event that took place a quarter of a year earlier required no further explanation.
Treme was the first ongoing series David Simon signed his name to after completing five seasons of The Wire, which was already being hailed as monumental television, a reputation that has only grown in the years since. The expectation was that Simon — along with co-creator Eric Overmyer, another Wire vet — would do for New Orleans what he did for Baltimore in the earlier series, exposing the layers of political and moral complications that prevented a major U.S. city — and its citizenry — from achieving its full potential.
New Orleans, though, proved to be a more difficult metropolitan beast to wrestle into a manageable narrative, and that’s with a creator who was more open to raggedness and ambiguity than most. Therein, lie the program’s inescapable flaws. In the same cascade of ricocheting notes, its exuberant, unique strength also takes up residence.
Debuting in 2010, the series is initially set around five years later, when the wounds of Hurricane Katrina and its more devastating aftermath — predicated on the failings of institutions and structures rather than the uncontrollable bullying of weather patterns — were still at their rawest. New Orleans is a city in heartbreaking disrepair, populated by people trying their best to persevere even as the bare mechanics of urban redemption feel forever out of reach. Heavily reliant on tourist dollars, the community has effectively had a “Stay Out” sign erected at the border, and all structures — social, physical, spiritual — crumble anew as soon as rebuilding gets underway.
In this place at this time, Treme settles in with a slew of characters whose pathways occasionally intersect. There are academics, attorneys, DJs, musicians, chefs, bartenders, and other scraggly souls operating on what look to the outside eye like the edges of professional society. In New Orleans, though, they’re the lifeblood, providing the culture with infusions of assured idiosyncrasy. They carry whole histories with them — their own, obviously, but also the accumulated lore of an almost mystical place that forgives most transgressions against courtly rectitude, even as an abiding craving for justice is one of the most common traits. Instinctively or strategically, Simon and his collaborators know that the best way to portray the people of New Orleans is to lovingly acknowledge the messiness that existed there well before the levees were breached.
Simon carries over some of his favored cast members from previous endeavors, including Khandi Alexander (who anchored his acclaimed HBO mini-series The Corner), Clarke Peters, and Wendell Pierce, the latter of whom has never — and likely will never — look as wonderfully at ease as he does as trombone player Antoine Batiste. (As a native of New Orleans, the cause of Pierce’s comfort is easy to surmise.) Some of these roles were surely shaped to suit the actors, but the astute instincts prevail up and down the call sheet.
In particular, it feels like Treme captures the last available time Steve Zahn could play the whip-smart wiseacre of wavering ambition that stood as his greatest expertise. Already a little long in the tooth to play such a character without it seeming sad or sociologically out of step, Zahn instead can tap into a certain New Orleans archetype: the crafty layabout equally thwarted and enabled by the city’s genially lax brand of hedonism. It would be an overstatement to call Zahn’s performance great, but his own history onscreen gives it a certain valedictory aura, which itself suits the the soft gloom misgivings of a vibrant city veering treacherously close to permanent decline.
As it continued, Treme became somewhat a victim of the necessity for the characters to progress. And the creators were true to the logic of the arcs they’d begun, even when it arguably did some harm, dragging characters into realms that were less compelling, such as chef Janette Desautel’s (Kim Dickens) relocation to New York City or violinist Annie Talarico (Lucia Micarelli) achieving greater success and resultant expectations of commercial acquiescence. These progressions made perfect sense (Simon is too careful a storyteller to settle anything less), but they pulled the series away from its hardscrabble soul, depicting a vibrant place and colorful people asked to endure more than should be reasonably borne in the modern age.
In the first season, Treme is at its purest and most powerful because it’s also at its leanest. The emotions are potent and unyielding, given their clearest, sharpest expression in the YouTube monologues delivered by Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a Tulane professor raging against all the ways the city was let down by the structures — physical and social — that were supposed to offer protection. The surprising fate of Creighton is another part of the program’s poignant thesis, arguing hope can be pushed to a breaking point and defeat can eventually swamp out joy.
At its strongest and most resonant, Treme mirrors the common travails of humanity, using the city of New Orleans as the ideal backdrop, garish and soiled and beautiful.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three