Down in the Treme, just Judge Clark Douglas and his baby.
Our reviews of Treme: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published March 24th, 2011), Treme: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published April 24th, 2012), and Treme: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published November 7th, 2013) are also available.
Just a little while to stay here.
"Welcome to the city that care forgot."
Facts of the Case
For four seasons, HBO's Treme examined the life and times of numerous individuals trying to survive in post-Katrina New Orleans. Among the show's regulars were an angry writer (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski), a perpetually unlucky trombone player (Wendell Pierce, The Wire), an aspiring chef (Kim Dickens, Deadwood), a gifted violinist (Lucia Micarelli), an impassioned attorney (Melissa Leo, The Fighter), a stubborn Mardi Gras Indian Chief (Clarke Peters, The Wire) and his trumpet-playing son (Rob Brown, Don John), a world-weary member of the N.O.P.D. (David Morse, The Green Mile), an enterprising businessman (Jon Seda, The Pacific), a bar owner (Khandi Alexander, NewsRadio), an impetuous DJ (Steve Zahn, Sahara), a drug-addled keyboard player (Michiel Huisman, World War Z) and many more. Fortunes rise and fall, love is found and lost, buildings are constructed and demolished, but the great music and the resilient New Orleans spirit never wavers.
In the spring of 2012, much-lauded showrunner David Simon spoke bitterly about the fact that The Wire (generally accepted as one of the greatest television shows of all time) wasn't appreciated early enough. A sample:
"I do have a certain amused contempt for the number of people who walk sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along. It's selling more DVDs now than when it was on the air. But I'm indifferent to who thinks Omar is really cool now, or that this is the best season or this is the best season. It was conceived of as a whole, and we did it as a whole. For people to be picking it apart now like it's a deck of cards or like they were there the whole time—it's wearying. Because no one was there in the beginning, or the middle, or even at the end. Our numbers continued to decline from season two on."
History repeated itself with Simon's follow-up show, as Treme debuted to modest ratings and kept losing viewers as it progressed. Most networks probably would have canceled it after the first season, but HBO stuck with it as long as they did simply because A) they could afford it, given the ratings success of blockbuster shows like True Blood and B) they had a great deal of respect for the show itself and were proud to have it as part of their lineup. Even so, by the end the ratings were so low that HBO decided to cut the final season in half, giving Simon only five episodes instead of the usual ten or twelve to bring things to a close.
It's easy to understand Simon's point-of-view—what good is universal adulation if it mostly comes after your show has already been yanked off the air?—but it's arguable that his work is easier to appreciate once it's completed. More than any other showrunner, Simon has a tendency to craft episodes that feel less like self-contained stories and more like chapters of a novel (even moreso than Game of Thrones, which adopts a very similar approach). It must have been a neat experience to read Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities in weekly installments when it was first being published, but surely reading the complete novel from start to finish in a more condensed period of time ultimately proved a more satisfying way to digest that story? So it was with The Wire, and so it is with Treme.
In fact, Simon and co-creator Eric Overmeyer turned Treme into an even more open-ended show—it begins after the drama has started and concludes before it's finished, which is only natural given that the story of post-Katrina New Orleans and its residents is one that is still unfolding to this day. Life tends to avoid wrapping everything up in a tidy bow, and while the series finale does indeed carry a certain weight of finality, it's hard to escape the sense that these characters will experience many more ups and downs that we'll never get to see…and honestly, that's a good thing. It's a virtue that only adds to the feeling that this show permitted us to live in New Orleans for a few years, to experience its overwhelming pleasures and its heartbreaking realities. For all of its plot strands about corrupt cops, useless government officials, greedy capitalists and broken dreams, the series really is a love letter to the people of New Orleans and the culture they so enthusiastically preserve. For this viewer, it's impossible to watch a few episodes of the series and not feel a great urgency to spend some time immersed in that beautiful mess of a city as soon as possible.
The show isn't flawless. Simon has a tendency to turn just a bit too preachy every now and then (from the overcooked John Goodman political rants of the first season to the contrived auto-tune bashing during the series finale). A host of musicians, chefs and other real-life individuals are frequently called upon to play themselves, and some of these folks are better actors than others. Every now and then, a character will get trapped in a subplot that just feels too conventional (Sonny's drug drama in the first season) or too disconnected from the rest of the show (Kim Dickens' assorted culinary adventures in New York), though it's worth noting that in almost all of these cases the plots feel a bit more satisfying when viewed in the larger context of the series.
So no, the series isn't quite The Wire 2: New Orleans in terms of quality (it became obvious fairly quickly that it wasn't going to be the same thing in terms of subject matter), but it's nonetheless one of the most valuable and underappreciated shows of the past few years. It seems unlikely the series will ever gain the sizable audience The Wire has in the years since its cancellation, because Treme doesn't offer the sort of addictive drama that might inspire countless binge-watching sessions. You have to take the series at its own pace, adapt to its languorous rhythms and learn to roll with its occasionally passive-aggressive attitude (an element that turned off many viewers early on, but a crucial piece of its authenticity).
When you do manage to get on the show's wavelength (and you almost certainly will, as long as you're attentive and patient), you'll be treated to a host of remarkable virtues: incredible music, skillful long-form plotting, delightfully naturalistic dialogue and one of the best ensemble casts on television. I could offer individual superlatives to each of the actors, but let it simply be said that almost all of the major players truly inhabit the characters they've been asked to essay. Okay, and let it be said one more time that Wendell Pierce's Antoine always has been and always will be my favorite character—a good-natured yet flawed man who is similar to and yet entirely different from The Wire's Bunk.
If you've been purchasing the individual seasons on Blu-ray as they've been released, Treme: The Complete Series (Blu-ray) doesn't have a whole lot to offer. Each season is given its own simple, sturdy Blu-ray (they're much slimmer than the individual releases, which is a good thing for those who value shelf space) housed within a simple, sturdy cardboard box. Nothing has been altered in terms of the audio or video, but that's a good thing given that HBO has done a customarily excellent job in that department from the beginning. All of the original supplements have been included, though season four feels short-changed in contrast to the rest (it only receives two audio commentaries, while the other seasons boast many commentaries and featurettes). The only new bonus material is a disc featuring fifteen "music videos" (though most of these are merely extended scenes from the show itself). The music is splendid, but you can hear all of it within the context of the show and not miss a whole lot. Unless that's something you really need, hanging on to your individual seasons is probably the best way to go. Still, for those who haven't seen or purchased the series yet, this simple-yet-effective box set is a good option (especially considering that the individual seasons vary in size and packaging quality).
Treme could have cooked up some melodrama to stir up ratings—thrown in more sex (there's very little of that sort of thing, especially in contrast to many HBO shows), added some over-the-top violence (the killings in the show are infrequent, realistic and sobering) or raised the stakes in some dramatic way for the characters, but it remained true to itself from start to finish. It's a work of remarkable quality and creative integrity that lives up to the spirit of one of its taglines: "Won't bow. Don't know how." Here's hoping Mr. Simon and his associates keep getting opportunities to tell stories on their own terms.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.