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David Simon’s Treme Is No David Simon’s The Wire (So What?!)

OK, this might be a little harder than we thought. The anticipation for David Simon’s Treme, which premiered last night on HBO, has been extraordinarily high, at least in my head, but now that it is here, we are going to have to deal with it on its own terms. It’s hard to approach a show like Treme with the knowledge that it is from the creator of The Wire without wishing that it just was The Wire. Although season 5 wasn’t my favorite season, with its heavy-handed Jayson Blair parable, and the multiverse alternate-timeline plot in which Frank Sabotka had never even worked at the shipyards (JUST KIDDING, WIREHEADS, JEEZ), I think we all would have loved to see that show continue for 1,000 more years. At least. But if you try to satisfy your Wire cravings with Treme, you are going to be disappointed. It’s like momma always said, Treme is as Treme does. (She also said: life is like a box of jazz.)

So, Treme, you guys:

Let’s face it: a little boring so far! For one thing, I could barely understand a single word that anyone said for the first 15 minutes. And just from a purely technical stand point, as someone who lives in a Big City Apartment Building, the constant volume shift between explosive jazz and mumble-mouth dialog made it very hard for me to remain conscientious of the sleeping baby who lives next door. (It’s a 9-year-old in a studio apartment by herself. ONLY IN NEW YORK.) Of course, most of these problems are Gabe problems, not Treme problems, but I refuse to believe that I am alone in this, because if I were to believe I was alone in this, I would be all:

But let us pretend for a second that I am not a 78-year-old with a Benjamin Button ear horn hearing aid glued to my head. For one thing, I was trying really hard last night to remember what it was like watching the first episode of The Wire, and I definitely know that I was really confused. Of course, I watched the first few seasons of The Wire on DVD, so I had the benefit of knowing that I was watching the first few episodes of a great show, and my patience would be rewarded. Moreover, a police procedural, however complicated and focused on the social lives of its characters, is going to have an immediate dramatic pull that is more powerful than a loving portrait of a ruined city filled with music. However, what I am trying to say is that last night’s episode was laying a lot of groundwork for what is to come, and David Simon has a tendency to avoid too much hand-holding, and so for now we sit back and absorb and we wait.

Having avoided most of the pre-show publicity, I was happy to see that Steve Zahn is in this. Steve Zahn! He’s great!

His character is also a little annoying. Let’s be honest. With his musical obsession and adolescent sense of aesthetic superiority. Also, why was he being such a jerk to those two dudes who were just trying to tend to their garden? But the scene in which he was trying to hang out with Elvis Costello was LOL, and just in general Steve Zahn is the best. And he was not the only character who was a little too flatly drawn for my tastes. There was John Goodman’s militancy and Wendell Pierce’s constant taking of cabs he can’t afford.

The person that I am most into so far is Clarke Peters’s character, Albert Lambreaux, perhaps because he’s the one that we know the least about. He’s back in New Orleans, cleaning out a bar he doesn’t own, and trying to get his crew back together for Mardi Gras. His children don’t like the sound of this at all! They are like “daaaaad!” But he is stubborn. Everyone in this show is stubborn. Matt Saracen’s mom is stubborn. Do not ask her about her house!

But, of course, the character that I am most into so far is NEW ORLEANS HERSELF (haha, barf, sorry, but also yes!). This show is, after all, a portrait of a broken city filled with music, and in that way, I would say that it is already a huge success. Not to get all White Tourist Filled with Self-Satisfaction at His/Her Own Appreciation of Cultural Exoticism, but this show definitely featured traditions of which I was completely unaware, starting with the opening scene’s unexplained (as far as I am concerned) impromptu parade through the streets replete with feather costumes and so many adorable dancing children, down to the elaborate, gothic funeral parade through the streets, complete with horse-drawn glass-walled hearse, patterned marching, and ornate funeral decorations the likes of which I have not seen before.

And as far as the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, this was handled best of all. The show certainly deals with it outright, both through the physical incarnation of human outrage in John Goodman’s character, as well as its insinuation into numerous plotlines, including the understaffing of the fancy restaurant, and the missing brother of Antoine Batiste’s ex-wife. But the show deals with the aftermath in a much more subtle visual way that I found really compelling. For one thing, the opening credits, featuring stylish, decontextualized images of various waterstains was visually stunning, and then you had small moments where it just crept up on you:

Or stared you right in the face:

In any case, Treme is filled with complex characters (despite Wendell Pierce’s insistence on only taking expensive cabs he cannot afford, his character also has a rich background story that we are only just beginning to learn about!) in an interesting city at a historical American moment. And David Simon’s track record strongly suggests that we are right to trust him and see where this goes. It is not The Wire, but that is OK. We already have The Wire, and no one can take that away from us. And now we have Treme. Hi, Treme!