May 17, 2010

The private answers of Treme

Treme: This time the city's really broken.

I don't know if David Simon could have done his new show if Katrina hadn't crushed New Orleans. Not only because the subsequent sympathy and interest allowed him to sell Treme to executives who didn't understand the pitch except for the name of the city, but also because, after the flood, New Orleans was a city broken in dramatically different way.

The Wire, as a show about a city, about the institutions of a city, had characters who were always trying to either make their peace and live with broken Baltimore or trying to fix one part of it, like the city was Neurath's boat. One of the interesting things about the show was watching how, whatever the characters did, whether they participated or dropped out, accepted the system or fought back, the brokenness just kept perpetuating. Whichever way you played, and whether you were Bodie or Bunk, Daniels or D'Angelo, Stringer or Colvin or Carcetti, the game always won.

Baltimore was broken in a way that ensures it would always go on. But in Treme, the city's even more broken than that. If David Simon had set a new show in any other American city -- Atlanta or Cincinnati, Oakland or Philadelphia, St. Paul or Seattle -- the story would have been different, but basically the same. With New Orleans, though, the city's so broken as to almost not exist, to serve as a blank spot in the story, and the characters are not so much responding to the institutions as the absence of them.

In the not-quite-anarchy of Treme, the characters face the question: what do you do when the institutions won't continue, when there isn't this self-perpetuation? Do you leave or stay? Do you invest or get out? Do you sell out and go play paying gig in Houston? Do you busk for disaster tourists? Get a job in an inn on Bourbon Street? Rage and sputter at the fucking fucks on YouTube? In this way, Treme is more interested in the personal, the private: the spaces and places where we respond with impotent rage or desperation, quiet determination or frustration, hope or despair.

"It's guys," David Simon said, "deciding what key they're going to play a song in, and what song they choose to play and why, and what they do after the song. It's drama in very small moments, on a human scale."

The private answers and spaces for answers we see at the start of the show are music and work, mostly, and it will be interesting to see if, as the show goes on, in a really radically broken city, these answers are presented as working.