Goodbye Treme

We just completed the blink-and-you-missed fourth and final episode of the HBO series of Treme. I haven’t had a chance to post my thoughts until now, but it is a show that I will greatly miss. Created by David Simon of The Wire fame, Treme never reached a die-hard audience the way its older sibling did. The Wire was ostensibly about the drug wars in Baltimore, and, as such, had a fairly heavy plot. An episode of Treme, though, could be about one of the character’s trying to get a gig at a local club in New Orleans and thus had a greater focus on character.

It’s a shame, really. Treme was one of the most original and innovative pieces ever created for television. And since as a culture we tend to eschew innovation the wonder is not that HBO cancelled the show but that it waited as long as it did to do so. The closest work I can think of to Treme is the Robert Altman film Nashville. Both use their respective cities and music worlds to comment on the state of this nation at a critical point of its history.

The first season of Treme followed immediately on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. It focused on the government incompetence in responding to the disaster. Simon placed his New Orleans in opposition to other cities in America. And, for season one, the bogey man was Washington D.C. The hurricane created a diaspora of the poor and non-white populations to places like Houston, and the government of George W. Bush as portrayed here is in nor hurry to get them back. New Orleans is traditionally a blue city in a red state, so a political agenda seems clear. But here is the problem: New Orleans has an unique and distinct culture. Think of New York with its Dutch and English foundations and then overlaid with wave after successive waves of cultures and peoples from around the world. Now consider the same for New Orleans with its French and Spanish foundations. Add to that a rich tradition of African culture transmitted orally at places like Congo Square. In New Orleans, the population, the neighborhoods, the communities are the libraries…are the archives. Remove the people from the place and you destroy the culture.

In the second season and for the rest of the series’ run, the mantle of bogeyman city was taken up by New York. New York stands in for corporate interests who are looking to take over New Orleans and turn it into a Cajun Disney World. A character like Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) arrives to gentrify and therefore transform New Orleans to conform with how the rest of the country appears, works, exists. Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) loses control of her own name when entering a business arrangement with a large corporation that wants to sell New Orleans-style food but rob it of its uniqueness. Yet Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), a New York-based jazz musician, returns home and finds synthesis between his New York world and New Orleans one. Throughout, Simon dramatizes the struggle between specific New Orleans characters as they encounter a larger and aggressive national culture.

Sometimes this can lead to despair. In the third season, a number of characters attend an outdoor production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot staged against abandoned buildings; such a production did occur historically. On stage, the characters wonder if Godot will arrive tomorrow. An elderly man in the audience mutters, “He ain’t comin’. He ain’t comin’.”

And sometimes this can lead to joy. In the latest season, DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) intones on the radio, “We live in a Creole nation. Get used to it.” That last statement thrilled my heart.

But now Treme is over, but thanks to modern viewing methods, you can still watch it. So during these cold and dark winter days, I can think of no better way of spending time then taking a trip to New Orleans.