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After the flood, watching the paint dry
on 12 July 2011
Were you one of those Wire addicts who couldn't resist watching just one more episode, staying up into the early hours?
If you're expecting Treme to take over your life in the same way, then think again. I've just finished the first series and believe me, it was hard work at times. There were actually evenings when we were searching for something, anything, else to view, just to give us a break from Treme's snail-pace plot development and all-too-frequent and all-too-long jazz improvisations and band rehearsals.
That's not to say that there isn't a lot to like in Treme. The acting is top-notch, the cast is packed with your old friends from Simon's previous ground-breaking shows (The Wire, The Corner and Homicide - Life on the Streets) and scriptwriters include novelist George Pelecanos (another Wire stalwart), Eric Overmyer (ditto) and James Yoshimura (from Homicide) as well as Simon himself. There are guest appearances as well, notably Elvis Costello and Steve Earle (barely recognisable, looking like a cross between Ben Gunn and a yak). The cinematography is faultless, not surprising with Ivan Strasburg at the helm, and the musicianship is superb (even if, like me, you soon discover that there's actually quite a lot of New Orleans music that is not exactly to your taste).
So what's gone wrong? Well, the storylines, or lack of them, are the main problem. As the characters try to rebuild their lives after Katrina, they fret about getting their roofs fixed or paying their bills, argue about which bands to play with or try to cope with writer's block. All very realistic, but not the stuff of good TV. Even the most dramatic thread - the search for LaDonna's missing brother - is slow and mostly uneventful, and its only in the final two episodes that the other main story-arc (that of ranting writer Creighton) reaches any kind of denouement, and produces (in me, at least), one's first real emotional connection with any of the characters, who for much of the series are either annoying, unsympathetic or simply uninteresting.
And weirdly, considering that the whole raison d'etre of the series is the revitalising of a city struck by a cataclysm, you don't really get the sense that New Orleans is on its uppers. The first episode begins just three months after the hurricane, and there's a fair bit of debris around. But in subsequent episodes there's little evidence of devastation; the streets are mostly clean, potholes mended (when Davis gets a flat from one of them, I could hardly see it!) the apartments (even those of the down-at-heel buskers) have spotless paintwork, and the cemeteries show little sign of the disarray and ruin that took more than a year to clear. And some New Orleans residents have complained that the waterlines, the omnipresent mark left by the floods, are almost nowhere to be seen in Treme, save in the opening credit sequence.
Only once in the series does the true enormity of Katrina come across, and that is when LaDonna searches amongst the bodybags in the makeshift morgue of a freezer container truck, hoping not to find her lost sibling. She steps outside, and the camera pulls back to reveal truck after truck after truck, mute testimony to the huge death toll suffered by the city.
Apparently Simon thinks Treme is the best thing he's done, and the critical response in the US has been mostly favourable. But it hasn't won any awards, as yet, and I think that at the time of writing it's worth noting that this is only the 15th Amazon review of Series 1 to be posted. The second season has just finished its run in the States, so it won't be too long before the box set is available over here. I'm not going to be counting down the days to its release, though.