Treme: the best TV series no one is watching

This remarkable ensemble piece exploring the rebuilding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina deserves a bigger viewership, writes Emma Rees

November 6, 2014

Rebuilding from the roots up: the neighbourhood’s DNA is shot through with music, and in Treme actors interact with residents and musicians of New Orleans

Treme, Series Four

Created by: David Simon and Eric Overmyer
Directed by Anthony Hemingway, Ernest Dickerson and others
Written by David Simon, Eric Overmyer and others

I’m hooked by this sprawling, ensemble piece, the plot of which meanders like the Mississippi but also has unseen, dangerous currents beneath its surface

“Oh Lord. My mama died.” Herbert Freeman’s words are delivered with the apparently matter-of-fact intonation of one who has so profoundly incorporated a trauma that his account of it sounds strangely serene, even unemotional.

Ethel Freeman was 91 years old when she died in her wheelchair outside the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. Like the thousands of others there, she was thirsty, hungry, confused and without shade in temperatures of up to 38°C. Herbert recalls waiting until daylight with his mother’s slumped body, placing “a little towel” – all he had – over her face, eventually being told to push her body out of the way. “I didn’t really want to do it,” he says to the camera.

This was America in 2005. Herbert Freeman’s first-hand account is one of many recorded by Spike Lee in his monumental documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). His directorial style is as unassumingly grief-laden as Freeman’s testimony, and as free of histrionics. The Requiem is a long film (at almost four and a half hours) that scours away the political hyperbole and cant that followed Hurricane Katrina. One after another, New Orleans residents tell Lee’s camera their stories; share their mobile-phone footage; and despair at the appalling exacerbation of the disaster by the bungling of ill-prepared, inept officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, killing almost 1,000 and flooding 80 per cent of the city, whose levees, or dykes, were repeatedly breached as the Mississippi overflowed. It was the worst residential disaster in US history, and the city’s population fell from about 485,000 residents before Katrina to 230,000 in its immediate aftermath. We can all be somehow immune to statistics like these, and we need first-hand accounts like Freeman’s to shake us out of the complacency that impersonal numbers can create.

David Simon’s docudrama Treme, whose final series is shortly to begin its run on British television (on Sky Atlantic), in many ways picks up where Lee’s Requiem left off. Before Treme, which started in 2010, Simon was best known for the TV series The Wire (2002-08), the social-realist fiction set in Baltimore and beloved of academics everywhere (the University of York briefly hit the headlines in 2010 when it offered a module structured around it). This shares with Treme not only many of the same actors but also Simon’s feverishly evangelical compulsion to expose social injustice and give voices to the unheard. The Wire was a post hoc hit, but, in the UK at least, Treme is the best TV series almost no one’s ever watched (it had only about 25,000 viewers for the third season in spring 2013).

Like The Wire, Treme is part of that relatively new breed of TV that allows cinematic techniques time to develop in a small-screen series. Its abysmal viewing figures cannot take into account those who wait for box sets rather than slavishly doing what used to be known as “tuning in” at specific times to watch specific programmes. In series such as Boardwalk Empire and The Knick, serious film directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh can spread their creative wings, creating slowly evolving character arcs in a way that a 90-minute film cannot allow.

Treme is a remarkable and important work of art, quite unlike anything I’ve seen on TV or in the cinema before. It’s set in Tremé, a neighbourhood in the fourth of the 13 districts of New Orleans. In the southeast of the city, Tremé blurs into the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, perched on one of the Mississippi’s sluggish, grey loops. The 18th-century milliner turned property developer Claude Tremé could scarcely have envisaged the unique status that the land named after him would quickly come to have, as a home for a racially and culturally diverse confraternity of the oppressed, the gens de couleur libres – freed slaves, Creole people and “Mardi Gras Indians”.

Woman looking at devastated New Orleans house (Treme)

I’m hooked by this sprawling, ensemble piece, the plot of which meanders like the Mississippi but also has unseen yet somehow discernible, dangerous currents beneath its surface. From the outset, Simon was insistent that trained actors would interact with the residents and legendary musicians of New Orleans (who knew, for instance, that Fats Domino was still alive and singing Blueberry Hill with achingly mellifluous passion?). Although it is first and foremost a fiction, albeit one with strong underpinnings of testimony and fact, the incorporation of “authentic” voices means that Simon is letting New Orleans locals speak: to have employed only professional actors would have been to visit yet another indignity on the region.

Simon presents music as Tremé’s prevailing vernacular and as a way out of deprivation, since it offers modes of self-expression to people whose voices are otherwise overlooked. The trombonist Antoine Batiste (played by Wendell Pierce, himself a passionate advocate for New Orleans), for example, is a flawed, because human, character. As the series evolves, he works to help schoolchildren – many of whom have seen and experienced the most traumatic events post-Katrina – flourish through learning how to play music. He eventually leads his protégés in the Mardi Gras celebrations.

I’ve already said that it’s an ensemble piece, and the range, power and credibility of the characters is remarkable. My favourites include Davis McAlary, an optimistic, artistic musician and dreamer; Toni Bernette, a courageous civil rights lawyer; Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian Chief (played by the wonderful Clarke Peters); and bar owner and resilient survivor LaDonna Batiste-Williams (the remarkable Khandi Alexander).

Lambreaux sees himself as crucial to the continuity of New Orleans’ lineage of tradition and identities, and, in series three, this becomes a life-and-death matter for him. The New Orleans chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) uses food where Lambreaux uses music and dance. Along with sex, of which there’s also plenty in the series, the neighbourhood’s DNA is shot through with music and an equally distinctive culinary culture.

Treme is an exquisitely crafted quest narrative – all the many characters are looking for something or someone that the unrelenting waters swept away – and a social commentary. It’s a strange hybrid, maybe, but one that never jars. It is also a potent meditation on human frailty and resilience, and on human greed and lust. It’s a slow burner, but for me that only heightens the tender beauty of a historical piece, set in very recent times, sensitively exploring the literal and metaphorical rebuilding that has had to go on after Katrina. I’m mournful that the fourth series is the last, but actually it couldn’t be any other way: the chronology means that the repairs, both in terms of bricks and mortar and in terms of hearts, have almost caught up with themselves – and with 2014 – but are still ongoing.

The series’ excoriation of Fema’s catastrophic post-Katrina failings and exposure of the ingrained institutional racism that informed numerous disastrous policy decisions were revelatory for me – I thought I knew about Katrina, but I didn’t really know. The show must make for extremely uncomfortable viewing for various Louisiana and federal authorities, and for the New Orleans Police Department, but that’s no bad thing.

Yet Treme is, above all, a love story, a paean to one poverty-stricken neighbourhood of the displaced and the dispossessed; a place that is somehow boundlessly rich despite its financial poverty. What it isn’t is “a rich tapestry”. For that analogy suggests finiteness and completion when, in fact, most people’s lives are not woven, but tangled and untidy, with glimpses of beauty and coherence if we’re lucky. Loose ends are rarely tied up, but indelibly mark our psyches, making us who we are. Treme keeps Katrina, the beginning, on the agenda, even as the series draws to an end.

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