it isn’t bunk: why treme is better than the wire.
Don’t send me to Jessup, but here’s a heretical statement: Treme is better than The Wire.
I know I might be the only one to think so, but after watching the second season of David Simon’s followup series to his Baltimore masterpiece, I was struck by how Treme establishes a more subtle, detailed, and intimate tone than The Wire. As the show follows a disparate group of characters struggling to survive in the wreckage of post-Katrina New Orleans, it aches beautifully. Yes, Treme meanders at a mellow simmer, many notches lower than The Wire‘s insistent, air-tight, everything’s-connected-in-the-game design, but the new show develops a kind of slowly-emerging heat. It doesn’t burn brightly; its flavor sneaks up on you.
On Treme, social commentary arrives in a less mythic mode. Sure, there’s the pointed snipes at the Army Corps of Engineers and anyone who claims Katrina was a natural disaster rather than one that could have been avoided. But most of all there are the smaller, less epic lives of the characters, chronicled in careful detail. One might call the show more Flaubertian or Proustian than The Wire‘s famous “Dickensian aspect.” Which is to say, Treme takes the attitude of The Wire and let’s the social critique breathe rather than scream. The Wire is taut, clenched, simply amazing in its intensity. Treme is looser, more easy-going, but before you know it, the show is overwhelmingly powerful. Though we see the same intertwined character stories and epic scope, Treme departs from the constant, tragic, almost unbearable press of systemic forces on people. Instead, we get a more complex interplay between internal desires and external factors. There’s something less worked out on the macro level than on The Wire. Everything’s not “in the game” on this show. There’s just life—life and art, especially the performing arts of music and cooking.
The show is syncopated, sometimes roaring and soaring on a shout from the trombone of Antoine Batiste or a blast of cayenne from the grill of Janette Desautel, but most of the time Treme moves with a nuanced, humble, microscopic groove. It is finely-wrought. It moves slowly. As one would expect, the acting is magnificent, full of small gestures, tender interactions suffused with meaning and a kind of grace. The editing is also on par with The Wire as Treme weaves together scenes in provocative sequences whose themes glance off each other with ironic intent.
This ironic edge is descended from The Wire. And like that show’s concern with capturing the “real” Baltimore, Treme seemed, at first, to be obsessed with locating the authentic New Orleans. Even David Simon himself weighed in on the issue in the Times-Picayune. Why else have a white character from an aristocratic New Orleans family stumble around obsessed with being blacker than blue? Why else but have a disaster tour bus show up during a sacred Black Indian ceremony for a fallen crew member? But the more one watches Treme, the less and less the show seems interested in authenticity. Indeed, one might say its central theme is the uncanny space between authenticity and its opposite. There is no real, essential New Orleans that needs saving after Katrina, but rather a city soaked in equal parts inherited roots and self-invention.
That’s the real New Orleans on Treme, a slightly dreamlike place, a locale of absurd juxtapositions, one from which life emerges lived fully and with conscious zest. Like jazz improvisation itself. It’s this quality of notes played in the gap, some clams and some plums and some both at once, that makes Treme so beautiful. The show’s brilliance would not exist if not for the precedent of The Wire—Treme plays off the perfect score of that series. But this new show no longer needs to play games. Instead, as Antoine Batiste’s trombone teacher instructs him on Treme, the program simply stays straight ahead and strives for tone.