How 'Treme' Found Greatness In Ordinary People And Counterintuitive Storytelling

Treme HBO Still 2011

HBO's Treme wrapped up its second season Sunday and firmly entrenched itself not only as one of television's current greatest series but an intriguing little mystery behind the scenes of the show itself.

See, you could put 10 critics in a room, and even if seven of them agreed on the greatness of Treme, none of the seven would probably agree on what merits got it to such exalted heights. Nor would they likely agree on whether the show is going about its business the right way, even as they lay some praise on it. Treme is quite the enigma, it turns out. And if you haven't discovered that yet -- or, one might assume, the show itself -- then start renting or buying the episodes from the beginning (and say a little prayer that HBO's largesse continues toward this gem).

Before going any further trying to contextualize the achievements of Treme, it's necessary to talk about something series co-creator David Simon isn't too keen to talk much about anymore -- the fact he previously created arguably the greatest drama in TV history with The Wire. Just the fact that Treme is even in a conversation about top-tier television series is something of a miracle after that. The burden of expectation on Simon (and, in some sense, HBO) was enormous following The Wire, and the odds were long that a follow-up act would be any good. Why? Because making even one excellent series is rare. Repeating greatness in the arts is no easy feat. More so in television than almost any other medium -- even music, with the dreaded sophomore album. So that achievement -- and it's enormous -- needs to be thoroughly understood before moving forward.

It's this "past performance is no guarantee of future results" thing that might also be such a consternation when evaluating Treme. What I've sensed from critics is a difficulty contrasting, contextualizing and embracing the mostly linear storytelling of The Wire with the less structured, more free-flowing raft-on-the-ocean kind of storytelling of Simon, co-creator Eric Overmyer and the Treme writers. Almost every episode of The Wire through five seasons could be definitively deconstructed after each showing. Doing that for Treme is like writing definitively about a marathon at the first mile marker.

Even in Sunday's finale, when a number of story arcs seemed to reach a satisfying season-long conclusion, they didn't actually end, or resolve. It's more like they evolved. The overarching message at the end of Season 2 was, "These stories go on." And there's a real beauty in that which is entirely different, say, from the genius of The Wire or any other top-tier show. More than any other series in memory, Simon and Overmyer are telling, almost in real time, quiet stories about ordinary people. Simon is still able to riff on the things he loves -- institutional failure, how government shirks its duty to its  citizens not just at the national level but state and local as well. But all of this is being done on a very personal level -- micro, not macro. It could be argued that Treme is a hell of a lot simpler than we all think it must be with Simon at the helm. He's a Big Idea guy, no doubt: Five seasons of dissecting Baltimore as an American city in decline, ravaged by a failed war on drugs, policing by the numbers, political corruption, an education system in tatters and a blind press will do that. But maybe Treme is about the rebuilding of a great American city by the only people who can really do it right and who really want to do it -- the people who live there. That's big, but simple, yes? Telling the stories of a random collection of people in New Orleans trying to accomplish this -- slowly, in real time -- is the template of the show. Immersing all of that with the distinctive culture of the place -- notably music, food and the native joie de vivre -- makes Treme a more visceral than intellectual series.

I think people want to dissect Treme intellectually because it was made by smart people. Plus, how do you explain viscera? That's complicated. I've often said that Treme is about a vibe, even though "vibe" is not a word I'm particularly in love with, nor is it exactly what I need it to be in reference to the series. In short, I just think Treme is better experienced than analyzed.

Beyond that, there's one more thing that needs to be acknowledged about the show: its taking advantage of HBO's unique place in the television landscape. Simon and Overmyer are being allowed to tell what Simon has called "organic" stories of normal people because HBO doesn't have to follow the rules of regular television. And that has almost nothing to do with sex or language or violence (all three exist in Treme, but are almost negligible in their importance). No, HBO is allowing Simon and Overmyer to write a vibrant novel for television in a languid fashion. There isn't so much urgency in Treme as other series. Allowing viewers to soak in the experience -- there's that visceral element again -- is a tremendous luxury.

The only question now is, how long does HBO keep giving this gift to viewers (and Simon and Overmyer)? Season 1 was 10 episodes. Season 2 was 11 episodes. The already renewed Season 3 will be 11 episodes. But at some point, given the trajectory that the two men have laid out for the series, Treme will have to find its own kind of resolution ( it obviously can't end by saying, hey, New Orleans is back and better than ever, so our job is done; cities are never finished evolving). If this kind of organic storytelling is to have some kind of ending -- and I'm not expecting a typical television "ending" -- it will probably need four or five seasons, depending on how languid HBO is going to allow the storytelling to be.

I hope it gets there. The ratings for Season 2 were down from Season 1. But, in our world of latecomers who can access DVDs, series on demand (and HBO GO, of course), there's hope still. Two seasons -- 21 lovingly made episodes filled with personal stories based on ordinary people -- will be there for viewers to experience (marinate in?) until Season 3 kicks off sometime in the spring of 2012. Why not opt in for a viewing experience that is so unique (and so mystifyingly excellent to many of us professional critics)? Treme is shaping up to be a wholly different viewing experience. Not revolutionary so much as natural. And the commitment appears to be there from HBO to see this vision from Simon and Overmyer all the way through. As viewers, we're lucky to have that largesse.

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