Source: Common Dreams
After three and a half seasons, HBO’s Treme concluded in December, and last week the entire series became available as a box set. The show started with low ratings that got lower as time went on, never won many awards, and divided critics. But as time passes and more audiences discover the show, it may rise to the position it deserves, as a groundbreaking and important work of art and as a powerful political statement on what happened in New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.
The struggle over the post-Katrina narrative has brought many filmmakers and journalists to New Orleans. In one of the most notable efforts, Spike Lee spent over 8 hours in two multi-part documentaries presenting a version of this history. But at over 36 hours, Treme shaped a deeper and more complex narrative that was also obsessed with authenticity. Although the show is credited to creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer, it is in many ways a collaborative process, born of hours of meetings with community members from all walks of life who helped shape everything from small details to major storylines. Simon and Overmyer hired local writers, like Treme resident, filmmaker, and columnist Lolis Elie and Why New Orleans Matters author Tom Piazza. The show seems almost pathological in capturing every major protest and musical performance and news event that happened in those first few years after the storm. Crew members would recreate the clothes residents were wearing, the apartments they lived in, the food they ate. Residents would play themselves, even if they had no lines of dialogue, just being there was important. The implicit promise was, after so many films and TV shows had gotten New Orleans wrong, this was the show that was finally going to get it exactly right.
When Treme launched, televisions across New Orleans tuned in like it was the Super Bowl. Throughout the first season, you could find the show playing in bars and social spaces (and even in one funeral home) throughout the city. It was the talk of the town, with a post-Wire hype that in retrospect was unfair to burden any show with. But as time went on, less and less locals came out, and by the end of season two, there were only a couple of spots left where you could go and see the show, and the debate over plot points became less of a conversation starter across the city.
This obsession with authenticity is part of what turned many locals off of the show. I heard many residents complain, especially in the very bleak first and second seasons, that they couldn’t watch the show because it caused them to relive personal trauma. Others said they were bored because it was too close to their lives – they wanted escapist fantasy, not home movies. In focusing on culture more than crime-solving, Treme never was going to hook viewers in the same way as a show about cops chasing suspects.
There were still, of course, many fans, and the nola.com website continued to post near-daily stories about the show, but the series failed to become the phenomenon it first seemed destined to become.
I was among those who never stopped watching. I should also note as a disclaimer that I appeared (very briefly) as myself in season three, and I know several writers, performers, and crew involved in the show. But I am hardly alone in having some bias. It feels that nearly anyone who has lived here for some time knows someone connected with Treme. The show was breathlessly dedicated to capturing every aspect of cultural life in the city. Local musicians of every conceivable genre appeared on the show playing themselves. Journalists, Mardi Gras Indians, activists, poets, police, lawyers – all were cast in the evolving drama.
To me, this is part of what was exciting about the show. I love the way it blurred the line between fact and fiction, between drama and documentary. Although David Simon has resisted seeing Treme as journalism or documentary, given the evidence it’s hard not to take this view.