Understanding why the HBO show is so deeply boring
To get an idea of just how little drama is present in HBO's Treme, which wraps up its second season this Sunday, just read the online plot synopses. They contain lines like: "Antoine Batiste is doing right by the young people" and "Janette Desautel has found her groove at Lucky Peach" or "Sonny is moving forward on all fronts."
That's what a show without conflict sounds like.
The most obvious problem with Treme is that it is boring. Probably the most significant plot development of this past season was that one character formed a band. Also another character formed a band. Some bad things happened as well, and there seems to have been some shoddy police work that took place during Katrina, but all in all, it feels like things are going to be more or less okay. All we have a group of well-meaning characters sort of muddling their way towards happiness.
It's baffling to see, because creator David Simon showed such a keen sense of plot, structure, and all the different ways to deploy tension with his previous show, The Wire, set in Baltimore. In The Wire, there was no okay, just a desperate clawing toward a status quo that killed everyone it touched. Simon understood that—he'd worked at the Baltimore Sun city desk for 12 years. But the crusty old reporter that took such an unsparing eye to a troubled city seems to have turned himself into an affable tourist when he got into the Big Easy. Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler.
Treme takes every opportunity for extremity and crams it into an amorphous, semi-pleased middle. We have a cop and a lawyer who are occasionally at odds but still understand where the other is coming from. We have a man who gets along swimmingly with his ex-wife's new husband. We have a dope fiend, who, you know, is working on it with strong support from a bandmate. One of our characters quits in disgrace at a job she hates, then immediately gets a great new job with a swell boss. And then she gets an even better one.
It's all set to an endless montage of New Orleans things: People in the know are meant to constantly recognize restaurants, musicians, streets, and sayings. The Columns! Domilise's! Dr. John! Simon sure has done his homework, the audience thinks. He's been to restaurants! Even in an episode set in New York, the series can't avoid its rampant referentialism and feels the need to cram David Chang in there. The audience thinks, "David Chang!"
In a recent episode, one of the characters went out to Cajun Mardi Gras because, hey, Cajun Mardi Gras is cool.
That bit is authentic New Orleans—there is nothing New Orleans loves so much as New Orleans—but the show can't get past the desire to be authentic. It feels like a hell of a vacation in New Orleans. Granted, it's a well-informed, nuanced vacation, and Simon has clearly made an effort to ask the locals where to go, but it is a vacation nonetheless. In the first season, a Katrina tour bus rolls up on a Mardi Gras Indian funeral, and we balk at the voyeurism (of course, after being scolded the driver says: "you're right, you're right," and drives off. Everyone must get along!). But the show functions with the same impulse to uncover the "real" New Orleans.
"When it comes to the show Treme, I'm not afraid of any audience outside of New Orleans," Simon told NPR in 2010. "I don't care what anyone else thinks."
He does, however, seem terrified of the local audience. He deals with the city with kid gloves, saying: Mardi Gras Indians, look how great. Jazz, look how great. Corruption, oh, you know, it's kind of fun too, right? In the second season, former council president Oliver Thomas plays himself, and why wouldn't he? He comes off well. He was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for bribery in 2007.
To call Treme skin-deep would not be fair—Simon has given his best shot to show a side of the city the tourist doesn't reach, and reminds the viewer that he's on the inside at every chance he gets. But he cuts himself only so much so as to hold up his hand and say: look, I bleed.
Simon bled rivers for Baltimore. There was no praise and nothing spared, and yet the city loved it. It was a true love letter to a truly troubled city. It was love masked by hate. Treme is indifference masked by fascination.
There is evil in Simon's New Orleans. He seems to have figured that much out. But abusive cops, shadowy rapists, criminals, and uncaring bureaucrats remain faceless, amorphous, and the audience is not expected to think of them as any deeper than a pure force of bad that will ultimately be counteracted by our characters and their pure force of good.
There was no evil in The Wire, there was only humanity tearing itself apart in an effort to make it one more day. That's what made the tragedy so poignant—we were asked to love murderers and lawmakers alike, and know that nothing they did could change the self-destructive system they lived and worked in. It's the essence of Hegelian tragedy—that the success of one character necessarily means the downfall of another.
Simon could ask all the same questions about New Orleans that he did about Baltimore, but his infatuation with the city clouds his eye. That, of course, is also authentic New Orleans.