If there’s one thing that “Treme” demonstrates, it’s that David Simon is not infallible. For all that is great and wonderful and heartbreaking about “Treme,” it is not a perfect show. It’s not “The Wire.” “The Wire” deftly used local color to support the narrative and inform the characters. “Treme” uses character and narrative to inform the local color. “The Wire” was a puzzle you put together over the course of each season. “Treme” is a mosaic that you stand back and gaze upon. “Treme” is about New Orleans. Everything else — the character and the story — exists only to explore the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The extent to which you ultimately like, or even love “Treme” will depend on your interest in the culture, the attitude, the politics, and even the food of New Orleans. “Treme” is a study — a sometimes self-indulgent one — in the city, often to the exclusion of the characters and the story. With “The Wire,” David Simon stretched the boundaries of narrative structure; in “Treme,” he all but ignores narrative structure. It is aimless and wandering — it’s a ten-hour slice of life set to the music of that city.
And despite what David Simon would have you believe, criticizing his show doesn’t make you dumb. Simon is brilliant, but he’s a little full of his own genius in “Treme.” He can put you right smack inside a New Orleans jazz club, but he neglects to consider that the average television viewer — even a very intelligent one — might not necessarily want to spend their time in a New Orleans jazz club. Twenty-five percent of every episode is devoted to the music of New Orleans, and those extended musical interludes don’t move the characters or the story forward: They strangle what little narrative momentum Simon builds throughout the series. Likewise with the parades: One parade is informative, five parades is a little arrogant.
Indeed, nothing much happens in “Treme,” and the one significant character development in the series — as heartbreaking as it was — ultimately wasn’t particularly consistent with the character. The performances are brilliant, every last one of them. But then, most of the characters aren’t there to relay a story; they’re there to inform a certain aspect of New Orleans’ culture.
The question is: Is “Treme” worth watching? As a history lesson in post-Katrina New Orleans, it absolutely is. It’s as good a historical artifact of a certain time and place as you are likely to see. “Treme” very much captures the lives, the struggles, and even the occasional high point in the city’s progression in the six months following the hurricane that devastated the area. It was a painful time for the citizens of the city, struggling to find lost relatives, to keep their restaurants open, to bring back former residents, to deal with the political corruption, and to keep the vibrant New Orleans culture alive. “Treme” captures all of that: the pathos, the loss, and the fleeting joy that comes with the small victories.
If you’re at all a curious person, that alone should make the show very much worth visiting. But it doesn’t make “Treme” a particularly engrossing narrative. There are dead spots in the show that last for episodes. Character progression is incremental, at best. In some cases, characters — and their circumstances — are little changed from the beginning of the series to the end of the series. Is that reality? Of course. Does it make a particularly compelling narrative? Not always. But as visual documentation, it is invaluable.