Hangin’ in the Treme

Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux in Treme

When I was sick with a cold last week, I spent almost three entire days watching seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire, one episode after another. It was so enjoyable that I almost regretted getting better. I’m not sure which I would prefer: to have a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat while observing McNulty, Freamon and Daniels struggling against a miasma of crime and byzantine government institutions, or to be well and step out into the dull real world.

After my personal Wire marathon, I realized that I had seen every season of the show, some of them twice. Yet, I was addicted to the writers’ point of view of America. The solution was for me to give Treme a shot, since it was created by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and shares much of The Wire‘s writers and cast.

I’d been reluctant to check out Treme because it has a reputation for being boring. When HBO approved a second season for the show, I remember seeing comments on the internet to the effect of, “maybe something will happen this season.”

I suspect that the people who claim that nothing happens in Treme only liked The Wire for its gunfight scenes. There isn’t much of that in Treme (only one scene that I can remember featured gunshots), but the same elements that made The Wire a brilliant show are there: compelling characters and a realistic, informative portrayal of American life.

One of the many themes Treme shares with The Wire is the inefficacy of America’s government. Both shows believe that America’s true character is in its people, not in the actions of its government, which is depicted as a distant, blunt force controlled clumsily by selfish hands. See, for example, the plotline in season 3 of The Wire in which Major Colvin establishes a drug-tolerance-zone (“Hamsterdam”) that works wonders for the community but that the police commissioners shut down because it makes them look bad.

Treme concentrates on the way the federal government bungled its response to Katrina. One of the show’s main characters, Albert “Big Chief” Labreaux (played by Clarke Peters, Lester Freamon in The Wire), occupies a housing project that was shut down despite the fact that it wasn’t damaged much in the storm. It’s implied that the “fucking fucks” in the federal and local government (as they are called by John Goodman’s character, a Tulane professor), aren’t eager to see New Orleans’ poor, black population return.

Another character, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, spends most of the season trying to figure out what happened to her brother, who was mistakenly jailed hours before the storm and was then lost in the system. With the help of an attorney working pro bono, she circumvents the defense mechanisms of the local government to discover that her brother died from head wounds that he supposedly got from a fall from a bunkbed. She finds his corpse stored in the back of a refrigerated semi-truck, next to dozens of other unidentified bodies.

One of the shows most powerful subplots, I thought, involved LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk in The Wire), a trombonist who’s always desperate for a gig. After Antoine accidentally bumps his trombone into the side of a police car, the police arrest him. His instrument and his livelihood disappear. He is rescued by a Japanese man who loves New Orleans’ music so much that he flew in after the storm to help struggling musicians. When the man buys him a shiny new trombone, Antoine looks sort of sad and confused, and that’s the way I felt too. Why must a foreigner step in to protect New Orleans’ culture from the local government?

The characters in Treme come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: a passion for New Orleans’ culture. In the first scene of the first episode, John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, throws a British journalist’s microphone into the Gulf after the journalist suggests that New Orleans isn’t worth saving because its music and cuisine are over the hill. In addition to occupying the housing projects, “Big Chief” Lambreaux does all he can to bring his Indian tribe back to New Orleans to perform their traditional dances in feathery costumes.

At first I didn’t like Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a goatee’d, overenthusiastic white guy who has disavowed his old-money family in order to embrace New Orleans’ traditional music and squalor. By the end of the season, however, I felt the same way about him that many of the other characters seem to: his passion made him worth having around. In the last episode, he tries to persuade his friend not to flee to New York by spending a day showing her the cream of New Orleans’ culture. His friend, a creole chef, is forced to move after her business fails due to damages done to her restaurant by Katrina.

Treme’s big message is that New Orleans is worth saving, and that it would save itself even without the support of its country. It seems ridiculous that a show would need to argue for saving a city with hundreds of years of history and culture behind it, not to mention millions of inhabitants, but the belief that New Orleans should be abandoned because of its unfortunate geographic position is disturbingly common. I’ve heard it not only from the media but from people I’ve met in real life. The fact that the wealthiest nation in the world has to even consider whether it wants to spend the money to save one of its oldest cities shows a big flaw in America’s culture.

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