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October 30, 2014

'Treme' Some Tough TV to Watch

by Stephanie Earp, posted Apr 27th 2010 10:31AM


I am one of those people you meet at parties who tries to convince you to rent 'The Wire', and may even offer to loan you my DVD sets if you seem interested. I might not know your name, but give me your address and I'll drop them by, possibly with some handwritten notes about my favourite moments.

You've met people like me, I'm sure. And right now, people like me are trying to figure out if the new show from the creator of 'The Wire' is going to be as important to us. In case you missed the hype, it's called 'Treme' (pronounced 'Tray-may') and it's set in New Orleans about three months after Hurricane Katrina.

I am one of those people you meet at parties who tries to convince you to rent 'The Wire', and may even offer to loan you my DVD sets if you seem interested. I might not know your name, but give me your address and I'll drop them by, possibly with some handwritten notes about my favourite moments.

You've met people like me, I'm sure. And right now, people like me are trying to figure out if the new show from the creator of 'The Wire' is going to be as important to us. In case you missed the hype, it's called 'Treme' (pronounced 'Tray-may') and it's set in New Orleans about three months after Hurricane Katrina.

Three episodes in, I'm still not entirely sure if I will one day be preaching about it at cocktail parties. I've always told people 'The Wire' is a hard show - it leaves you feeling frustrated and angry and requires you to glue your eyes to the screen to keep up with everything - but 'Treme' may be an even harder show. It doesn't have the same lightning pace, and it's much easier to keep track of the large cast of characters, but you get the feeling that no matter how much you like these characters, they wouldn't like you. It's sort of like listening to Nirvana back when I was in high school. I knew that as much as I adored Kurt Cobain, he would scoff at the likes of me.

In 'The Wire' institutions were the enemy, but in 'Treme' -- at least so far -- it's the tourists. They get a much worse rap than FEMA, George Bush or the Army Corps of Engineers. Whether they've come to New Orleans to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward that they'd never heard of before the storm, or to party on Bourbon Street and inject some cash into the faltering city, they are looked at with disdain by the characters of 'Treme'. That attitude rings with truth for me as a viewer. I can't imagine what it was like for the residents of the city to know the world was watching them at their worst moment and either dismissing them or adopting them. Both attitudes rankle. And 'Treme' manages to re-create that relationship with its audience. By watching, you become the ignorant tourist.

It's right in the name of the show. After Katrina, we all had new jargon in our heads -- Jefferson Parish, The Ninth Ward, Nola -- but who besides passionate jazz fans had heard of Treme, an historic neighbourhood west of the French Quarter? There are many good reasons to name the show after this area. It's where much of New Orleans music was born, and it was originally home to many of the first free people of colour in New Orleans, but I can't help but think part of the appeal is the fact that most people have no idea how to pronounce it. Even before you watch a single episode, you are an outsider, unfamiliar with the territory, now matter how much CNN you watched in September 2005.



'Treme' will rub your nose in your outsider status a few times and you'll either decide to accept it and keep watching, or it will turn you off enough for you to... well, turn it off. I imagine it's something show creator David Simon knows a little something about, as an old white man who wrote an operatic saga of black Baltimore in 'The Wire' and now tackles the black musicians of New Orleans. I figure if Simon can get past his own colonial guilt and write these stories, I can get past mine to watch them.

I realize that I may have painted the show as an unpleasant experience. That's not it at all - the show is incredibly beautiful. The music is stunning, and even the lingering shots of peeling plaster and paint are gorgeous. There are moments of humour, and moments of plain old righteous anger at the government (a pleasure TV doesn't often offer).

'The Wire' was tough to watch. It took a public disaster -- the war on drugs -- and made it private. It exposed the personal ramifications of impersonal policy decisions, making public something most people wish would stay hidden. 'Treme' also takes a disaster we think of as public and makes it personal and private, making public something its characters wish would stay private -- which means that to watch them is to betray them.

Now that's what I call a tough show.

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