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.