#telosvision: treme (the third, fourth & subsequent lines)

long-time readers will recall me writing about the first season of Treme last year. the bitter-sweet story of the residents of New Orleans’ poorest and most historically and culturally vibrant neighbourhood trying to rebuild their lives and community following ‘the storm’, moved me greatly.

well, not only is the second season just about to come to an end on HBO (which will probably mean a migration to Sky Atlantic quite soon after they’ve finished showing season 1), but also the DVD of the first season is now widely available in the UK. i’m not going to talk in many specifics about the narrative arc, etc., of either season here, but if it’s not something that’s currently on your radar, then i’m sharing a few broad-ranging thoughts and insights which i hope will change that.

Treme places very few priorities higher than accuracy. like its illustrious forebear, Frank’s Place, it is made by and stars several daughters and sons of NOLA, and many of those involved who are not native, are clearly under the city’s spell. perhaps none more so than the creators, David Simon and Eric Overmyer.

the fact that the series was originally created by Simon and Overmyer, of (utterly deserved) Homicide and The Wire fame, was what initially attracted me. however, given how different it turned out to be, i must admit that it was a surprise to find that Treme was as engaging, as perturbing and as hard-hitting as anything of their’s i’d seen previously. Treme has a similar sense of scale and scope to The Wire, focussing on the concerns of a small geographical area but setting those concerns in the context of a large city with a large socio-political structure.

unlike the Baltimore of The Wire, however, the New Orleans of Treme is not a seething, brutal leviathan, swimming beneath a thin layer of political ice, but a beached whale. the waters have come and gone, and everything has been turned over, inside-out and left out to dry. Treme is about the resources for and possible of hope in the face of utter destruction.

the one resource that Treme focusses on more than any other is music. New Orleans, of course, has a musical heritage that few of the world’s cities can equal. arising out of its unique history, born largely of its position straddling the mighty Mississippi, New Orleans represents a collision of Western European, Latin American, African and North American cultural influences, and nothing illustrates this better than the city’s musical legacy.

in particular, the infusion of European instrumentation and African rhythms imbued New Orleans music with a strong culture of brass. add to the mix the influence of Cajun, Zydeco, Polka, Banda, Ranchera, Delta Blues and European sacred music. these diverse cultural intertwinings, and the fact that it was the first city in America to allow slaves to freely associate and to play music in public, NOLA was destined to be the birth place of jazz.

music and the many social customs that involve it are cast in Treme as the glue that holds the place together – the infrastructure that Katrina could not destroy. shaped by its French Catholic past, New Orleans is a city that rises to music and lays down to music; welcomes its new borns and mourns its dead to music. happy or sad, together or alone, in public and in private, it is always music that marks the comings and goings of everyday life. it is a sacred city with a sacred rhythm.

in this sense, Treme is about folk music. i don’t mean mumbling, beards, waistcoats and Morris-men – Folk music – i mean folk music, music of the people. every type of good music is folk music somewhere – emerging out of lived experience, speaking to and charming it and returning back to its source in the life of the community.

but, despite the tempo of its music, Treme is not an upbeat drama. it is (somewhat predictably) steeped, from the outset, in tragedy. aside from the colossal tragedy of Katrina, the project itself was steeped in loss. one the main characters is based on New Orleans-based academic, blogger and political activist, Ashley Morris, who wrote profusely and passionately about The Wire and as a result became close friends with David Simon. in 2008, Morris died from a massive heart attack at the age of forty five. two years later, another of Simon’s long-time friends and collaborators, David Mills, the first season’s co-executive producer and writer (and staff writer on NYPD Blue, Homicide, E.R., The Corner and The Wire), suffered an aneurysm and dropped dead in New Orleans twelve days before the premiere of season 1.

there is little doubt that these tragedies close to Simon, as well as the numerous testimonies of those who suffered through the storm, shaped the tone of both series of Treme. however, the most beautiful moments Treme offers are those flickers of light that peak through the gloom, when laughter and good eating and dancing take away the pain and renew the faith of the characters – but i would be lying if these are the rule within the emotional landscape rather than the exception.

just as in The Wire, people die – and with alarming frequency and remorseless equality (i.e. don’t ever go thinking that central characters are safe). post-Katrina New Orleans is a disturbed place wrapped around disturbed people. in a strange way, the losses that we witness, that we grieve, bring with them a sense of calm and order that Treme has few other ways of portraying. i cannot help but think this is how it must have felt for many New Orleans people after the storm with the finality, surety and neatness of death providing a kind of perverted solace.

as with The Wire, the faces come and go, but what remains, what is really the focus of our attentions, is the city. the New Orleans of Treme is like a child perpetually struggling in the surf – just as it splutteringly finds its feet, another wave, perhaps smaller, perhaps larger than the last rolls in. the kicking, the gasping, the jumping is never over. the only way out is when you have no strength left.

but there is hope yet. the cultural bonds – the songs, the marches, the dances – are so powerful, are down so deep, are spread so wide that life will, must go on. as one character notes, following the death of a friend, towards the end of season 2, “he was always broke, but never beat.”

Treme wants to say that post-Katrina New Orleans will forever be broken in a specific way, but will never be beaten. i don’t know about you, but that’s a message from which i can take hope. everywhere i look around i see the unmistakable signs of brokenness and sometime even the glorious moments of peace, or the beams of truth that shine through can’t make up for the unescapable reality that damaged people damage people.

however, when the short-term goals of protecting those we love and holding on to what is ours become frustrated by the ebbs and flows of existence, sometimes, that is when its possible to see clearest that however broken life gets, it will never be truly beaten. frustrated? yes. waiting, with eager anticipation, for a end to futility? sure. hopeless? never.

 
The City by Steve Earle (shown above in his role as Harley in Treme)

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  1. I need to go watch the first season again I think.

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