David Simon's rich, complex shows have always been rewarding to watch alone, but they almost demand conversation, whether it's a debate over Baltimore's future or a reality check at a particularly audacious act of cruelty, style, or recklessness. His new show, an exploration of New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, premieres on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m. And to start the inevitable discussion, Alyssa Rosenberg, Latoya Peterson, Matthew Yglesias, Anna John, Kay Stieger, and Rachael Brown will be talking Treme.Treme different from Simon's other shows. Then Matthew Yglesias questioned how realistic the show is. Here, Latoya Peterson examines the series' approach to race and class.
Treme is first and foremost dedicated to exploring New Orleans' humanity, and considering the tone of most media coverage about the storm, it is easy to see why the focus lies firmly on each individual character. Each person explores the strain of day to day life in the Big Easy, engaging with tourists, smug journalists, and failing structures and systems while being enchanted by the intrinsic magic of the city. Indeed, the sights and sounds of New Orleans leap off the screen. From the introductory second line celebration (where revelers celebrate their lives and neighborhoods with a rolling party) to a somber, yet revelatory jazz funeral (also known as a dirge) closing, Treme discusses the political and social issues still in play through the lens of lived experiences.
Watching the first two episodes of Treme, the meandering focus of the pilot quietly overshadows the revolutionary nature of the show. David Simon, David Mills, and Eric Overmeyer created a television drama showing working class and racial narratives that dare to reveal the perspectives of those involved. Known for breaking racial casting norms on television, The Wire introduced a cast of color to the overwhlemingly white ranks of a mainstream cable. The SMO squad recreated this dynamic again within Treme, placing the lives of affluent professors and investigators alongside musicians and bartenders, all making their way through the post-storm landscape. As a viewer, Treme has the same feel as the critically acclaimed 90s comedy Roc, or August Wilson's stage play Jitney--these works reveal the reality of African American lives, but are conducted with a measure of dignity, something that is hard to come by. One of Treme's lead characters is named Ladonna, a Pam Grier type who is allowed to be both hard and vulnerable, shown as neighborhood enforcer, devoted daughter and sister, and loving mother, all during the same episode. These types of shows are about affirmation in a vacuum of constructed portrayals, of individually truthful narratives where people only expect to see pathology.
Each character appears to serve a different purpose outside of the story, with many vocalizing contemporary issues in New Orleans. For example, Albert Lambreaux is fascinating for a variety of reasons, one being his representation of different life stages. While he is currently a respected member of the community and a pillar of tradition, the events in the second episode hint at a less virtuous path to his current position. Lambreaux is also the neighborhood's resident "chief" - a title conferred due to his involvement with the Mardi Gras Indians. As Lambreaux struggles to pull together the members of his "tribe" before Mardi Gras and Super Sunday (St. Joseph's day), outsiders are treated to an interesting historical footnote: the exact origins of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition are not known, but most inception stories trace the practice to the intermingling of black and Indigenous peoples during the slavery era and the growth of the tradition as an homage to shared culture and solidarity.