When Treme first aired on HBO I decided to defer my viewing of it until at least the first season could all be watched together. That may seem unfair, but I know from many years of experience with HBO Series (and especially HBO Series crafted by David Simon) it’s better to consume them in gulps instead of sips.
Simon’s method of story telling is a sort of grand In Media Res. He decides at what point we will be joining the story and puts us right there. There is usually comparatively little in the way of exposition–just like in real life*. His method is a very life-like way of telling a story, but it counts a lot on the viewer being either very curious and very patient or already bringing encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and world to the table. It’s inductive story-telling, which is rare outside of books.
It’s hard to watch Treme (pronounced truh-MAY, unbeknownst to me for over a year) without comparing it to The Wire. It’s made by the same folks, has many of the same actors and is told in a similar style. It isn’t The Wire, however. After watching the first three episodes in the first season it is starting to show its weaknesses.
One of the best things about The Wire was the story-arc structure. Yes, you went into the beginning knowing that things wouldn’t be resolved at the end of each episode. And yes we went into it not knowing who was who or what was what. However it was clear from the first fifteen minutes of the first episode what the general story was going to be. Bad guys (the Barksdale crew) had gotten away with something and the goodish guys (Jimmy McNulty) were going to see them get comeuppance.
Treme has the same “what a minute–who’s that again? What are they talking about?” style, but there is no framework to give the show a form. Instead of watching a sort of jigsaw puzzle and having fun assembling the pieces, Treme is asking us to watch more of a flooding river. Appropriate to the setting, Treme is Jazz versus the Symphony of the Wire.
I appreciate Jazz, and I enjoy it on occasion, firing up some basic tracks to unwind. But I must admit that I find Jazz to be a sort of exclusionary religion of music. Either you buy in fully to its message, learning chapter and verse of who played what when and how well or you just don’t really GET Jazz. It’s freeform style is both deceptive and alienating. Well, not the style itself but the fact that people–who need structure–insist upon imposing a structure. And so the pure pleasure of the music is marred by all the Jazz Nerds who want to one-up you with their esoteric knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the world.
That, is essence, is the problem with Treme. At its heart it is a jazz story, one that you just experience for what it is, flowing along. But the need for dramatic structure–which is the essence of episodic television–is at war with the story and creates a dissonance.
*How often do you stop what you’re doing to explain a basic concept to your family and friends? “I’m so glad we decided to come unwind after work with a few drinks at this bar owned by your brother in law! I don’t know how he can run a business with his wife’s cancer hanging over his head.” I can’t get over the number of shows which do this so simplistically.