Treme as a new kind of television

Treme is far from the most entertaining show on television, and it will surely never make any top-ten lists of the all-time greats of the “high-quality cable drama” genre that defined the 2000s and is now apparently sputtering out. In some respects, though, it may be one of the most radically experimental TV dramas ever done — not on the level of content (as with something like Twin Peaks), but on the level of form. The kind of story Treme is trying to tell and the means it is using to tell it seem to me to be genuinely new, even if The Wire provides some degree of precedent.

One often hears claims that the setting “becomes like a character,” which generally means that the setting acts directly on events rather than being a more or less passive background to them. Certainly this is true of The Wire‘s Baltimore or, to use a particularly extreme film example, the bizarrely laid-out house in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Most of the time, though, those settings are more or less static and claustrophobic, so that the story is fundamentally about fully-realized individuals who are forced to bang their heads repeatedly against the wall.

What the broad canvas of serial TV drama allows Treme to do is to show the impact of a fluid, evolving confluence of social forces. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — to list the overarching themes of the three seasons so far: the shattering of the social bond, the frustrating attempts to put things back together, the sudden influx of questionable capital — provides an opportunity to present a shifting situation that is local and particular, as opposed to the sometimes banal “things sure are changing fast” gestures in Mad Men. It’s the kind of thing that would cover its own traces once it reached a new equilibrium, but the way the show is able to present the unfolding situation really captures the uneven development of social forces, the sense that things are stuck in a rut forever until suddenly, one fine day they aren’t.

To tell this kind of diffuse, cumulative story, the show has to rely on diffuse, cumulative methods. In place of an overarching plotline with hierarchically organized subplots, we get seemingly random plotlines that variously overlap and diverge. I’ve written before of the way that characters “shared” between plots serve as signals of overlapping themes, but the webbing has become tighter over the course of the series, tracing the outlines of a healing social bond. Most vividly, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, whose plotline was almost totally isolated from the rest of the series early on, has been much more closely integrated into the network of the show’s characters. Similarly, the property developer Nelson — whose abrupt appearance in the second season prompted the same “who the fuck is this guy?” reaction in the viewer that the arrival of carpetbaggers presumably did in New Orleans at the time — has reached a point where the most profitable “con” is to act responsibly, indicating a return to some degree of normalcy (which I assume will be shattered by the financial crisis in the final season).

What’s striking is the fact that almost all the characters are experiencing a sudden unanticipated success, but no one catches the general pattern — with the exception of the obnoxious Davis, who only becomes semi-conscious of the trend when his own personal failure sparks jealousy. That’s precisely the way social forces work, always on the fine-grained level of the individual, always appearing more or less random and particular to a given situation, yet adding up to a single overarching fact: in this case, that the money is finally pouring in. That produces opportunities, including some limited scope to rein in the criminal excesses of the police, but the fact that no one sees what’s going on means that they’re likely to realize only too late when those opportunities are beginning to close down. And periodically, an ignored TV occasionally tells us what’s going on in the broader world — Bush visiting New Orleans, Obama closing in on Hillary in the primaries… and I’m sure the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the abbreviated final season set to air next year.

What’s most remarkable to me about the show is the way it gets inside my head. I often feel like I could take or leave it, like I wouldn’t be curious about what happens to any of the characters if it were abruptly cancelled — but then all of a sudden it can break your heart. The fate of John Goodman’s character is an extreme example, suitable for the extreme situation of the first season, but each season has included a Big Moment like that. Most recently, it was a performance of Waiting for Godot spontaneously attented by Melissa Leo’s muckraking attorney character. Near the end of the play, when Vladmir and Estrogon have determined that they will wait yet another day, a man standing next to her proclaims: “Motherfucker ain’t comin’!” My initial reaction was to laugh, but when she asks him to clarify and then begins to tear up, I started to tear up as well.

How this disparate grouping of themes and characters, this complex and evolving map of connections and disconnections, can add up to something so moving is amazing to me — and it’s not just that they’re relying on the music to do the emotional work, because the most affecting moments always happen when the music has gone silent. I’m not sure how they do it, but I think their “technique” bears more analysis than that of most shows, just because they seem to me to be inventing it as they go along. How do you tell a story about something that’s bigger and more irrational than any individual or group of individuals? How can you tell the story of a city — and I mean really do that, not claim to be doing that while using the city as a backdrop for a story that could be set anywhere? How do you map that intersection between social force and personal story without letting one empty out the other? I’m not sure these were things anyone knew how to do on TV before Treme began, but they’re doing it.