In a television landscape dominated by dragons, zombies, dreams of the apocalypse, and detectives, David Simon’s 2010 show Treme is a breath of fresh air to revisit. No wait, scratch that–it’s a breath of musty air from an old house with creaking floorboards while a record player scratches a familiar song.
The show begins 3 months after Hurricane Katrina, and as you would expect from a David Simon project, follows a ensemble cast, each trying to live their lives after the storm. For those directly affected by the floods that means literal rebuilding, navigating the bureaucracy of government assistance, and searching for loved ones who lost contact during the storm. For others–the musicians, the restaurant workers, the lawyers and law enforcement officers trying to stave off corruption–surviving in post-Katrina New Orleans is a matter of returning to status quo and aspiring for more.
What makes Treme unique as a television show is the music, and how every character, regardless of their profession, has a deep relationship with the music of New Orleans. Amid the large cast with no specific protagonist, the music and its role in the lives of the characters is the real subject of the show. Of course–and I say this with only second hand knowledge–one would assume that music as a binding factor is what its like to grow up in New Orleans.
If there is one character who acts a center of gravity to the ensemble, it’s Albert Lambreaux. Played by Clarke Peters (who you will recognize as The Wire’s Detective Lester Freamon), Lambreaux is a humble and proud builder whose home was mostly destroyed by the storm. He’s well-respected in the community as being a chief in the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians–most people refer to him as Big Chief. And making a new costume so that he’s able to walk with his Indian crew on Mardi Gras day is more important to him than rebuilding his home. Peters growls throw his scenes with his head held high, exuding a knowing air about life’s hardships and the stubborn resoluteness it requires. His son Delmond comes to help, and finds himself straddling life between New York, where he’s a successful modern jazz musician, and New Orleans.
The cast is numerous and diverse. Antoine Baptiste is a professional musician hustling from gig to gig, never able to really soar even though he’s (relatively) beloved in the community and finds consistent work. (Played by another Wire alumnus–BUNK!–Wendell Pierce.) Eventually Baptiste, despite his hustling and dreams of bacchanalia, is ultimately caring and responsible to those who depend on him and he reluctantly takes a job as a high school band leader, and slowly finds himself more dedicated to the kids than to his own music career. Steve Zahn plays a charming rabble-rouser as DJ Davis, an entrepreneurial radio DJ, aspiring musician, and general prankster who is dedicated to preserving New Orleans and calling out bullshit when he sees it.
Like the music, food is a frequent topic on the show, most directly portrayed through the lens of Janette Desautel, a successful and yet perennially struggling chef (played by Kim Dickens). With cameos by David Chang, Eric Ripert, and Emeril Lagasse, the show’s portrayal of Desautel’s struggles is grounded in real world kitchens. Notably, Anthony Bourdain helped write these segments. She navigates the culinary world from top to bottom, from corporate kitchens to independent barbecues on wheels.
But I’ll stop needlessly listing off characters. I recently rewatched the full four season run of the show, and felt that distinct sense of sadness that you only get upon completing a great, long novel filled with characters you love. It’s just a television show, but I can comfortably say it’s a work of art. Treme portrays life’s endless ambiguities, pitfalls, and great beauties without hanging on any storytelling cliches, letting life and death play out in a way that makes you forget that people sat in a room somewhere writing this show from scratch. Have a watch, buy the soundtracks, you might be surprised.