HBO's Treme - The Character of Music

Finally, the first season of HBO's Treme is now out on DVD.  I say "finally" because I feel like I've been waiting forever to discuss the show with friends and others who don't have HBO (I don't either, but I've relied on the generosity of friends and family to stay on top of the series.)  Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme is a far-reaching cultural survey of the Crescent City - its culture, politics, and history.  Of course, music plays a central role in any exploration of New Orleans, and that is exactly the right way to describe how music is intertwined within Treme.  It almost literally "plays a central role."  Music serves not just as a backdrop but comes awfully close to being a full-blown main character within the narrative.  This is especially true as the series has hit its stride and has gotten all of its narrative exposition out of the way.  Fans of politics or cuisine will find much to like in Treme.  Those with a passion for music are likely to be most satisfied, and those who love all of the above (politics, cuisine, and music) will likely find the series addicting.  As one of my friends said to me before the series started, "It's like they created a show just for you."  I agree.  Thankfully for the creators, I think there are a lot of people like myself out there who probably feel the same way.

David Simon is the creator of Treme.   I should say right off the bat that I am an unabashed David Simon fanboy.  His prior project, HBO's The Wire, is not just the greatest television show ever made, in my opinion, but one of the best works of American art of the last century.  I even wrote a blog post once stating that the MacArthur genius grant winner should be named America's Secretary of Culture, an office that doesn't even exist, of course.

 


David Simon has an axe to grind, no doubt, as an angry critic of American culture. The brilliance of his work is that he grinds the axe so methodically, to such a razor sharp edge, that he can delicately slice his targets to pieces while reserving the irresistible right to strike a full decapitating blow on occasion. The latter method seemed to be on display a little too frequently in the earliest episodes of Treme, as one felt Simon was slamming his audience over the head with his ideas about the political frustrations manifested in response to Katrina or the abundance of civic pride in some of the New Orleanean characters. However, once he got that off his chest and stated his thesis, Treme has settled down to explore the subtle nuances of its main themes. These early missteps are kind of like the shrillness of a singer's voice nervously taking the stage for the first time before gaining a little more confidence, settling down, and finding that comfortable place that allows them to express who they are more naturally.  Speaking of, let's get to the music.

New Orleans is the heart of America's musical heritage - literally pumping music and culture up the large artery of the Mississippi River through the delta region to cities in the south and midwest, which then find their way through tributaries as far ranging as the cosmopolitan northeast and the Appalachian mountains.  The co-mingling of musical traditions from Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and Europe began in Congo Square during the era of American slavery, in the Treme neighborhood.  Were it not for Treme and Congo Square, we would certainly not have jazz music and possibly not the blues, which, of course were the predecessors and influencers of rock and roll, R&B, funk, bluegrass, and countless derivations of all.  To this day, Treme has remained a hotbed of musical exploration, which the series has exploited beautifully by including contemporary musicians from the area.  Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins were regulars during the first season, as was John Boutte, the creator of the series' wonderfully funky theme song.  The list of other musicians involved is long.

Just off the top of my head, those artists making appearances on Treme as themselves include Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Galatic, Rebirth Brass Band, and Elvis Costello.  Steve Earle is a regular on the show playing a street musician.  Probably half of the shows many characters are musicians as well.  What makes Treme's exploration of music and musicians so compelling is that the series is not bound by the constraints of the narrative bio-pic or the documentary.  Music is simply one (very important) part of a larger fictional story.  As a result, music is intertwined into the story organically and lovingly.  Great effort is taken to record the music in a natural fashion, almost like field recordings when applicable.  For instance, second line parades were filmed live in the streets rather than filmed on video with studio music piped in later.  After all, the goal is to capture the cultural importance of music and tradition in one of America's greatest cities, not to provide a sterile survey of "Important New Orleans Musicians."

The many cultural roles embodied by music are explored in Treme as well.  Whether the Bourbon Street tourist-oriented heritage gently poked fun at, the jubilation of Mardi Gras parades, the transcendent mourning of second line funeral marches, the political anger expressed through hip-hop, or simply the joy of a crowded club coalescing together amid the performance of world class musicians, music's many functions are represented.  The show's rhythms are also wonderfully off-beat, sometimes lingering on a musical performance much longer than one would ever see in a traditional television drama or Hollywood film.  Most importantly, however, the music always serves the larger story being told and is never just patronizingly presented for the purpose of relief or as a pandering showcase.  Again, music is a central character, as fully formed and three-dimensionally realized as any others on the show.

Don't get me wrong, Treme is not a feel-good story about a group of joyful southern musicians.  It is an angry socio-political critique that also happens to have a large reserve of joy and celebration amidst the tragedy of America's failing empire.  Like the best of this country's folk and popular traditions (certainly embodied by the traditional music of New Orleans) Treme manages to create compelling, enduring, honest, and uplifting art from the most difficult and painful of circumstances.

__________________________
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.

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Tags: David Simon, HBO, New Orleans, Season 1, Treme

Comment by David Haskin on June 6, 2011 at 6:01am

Thank you,  Dustin.  Treme is, by far, the best thing on TV now and, arguably, ever. It captures in some powerful and unique (for TV) ways a huge chunk of the human experience, the joy and the sorrow in full measure. It is incredibly real, not the usual exaggerated-for-effect way that joys, sorrows and life lessons are done by even some of the better TV shows. 

 

I liked The Wire, and I agree it was one of the best works of television ever.  But it was very much focused on the challenges of life.  The reason I love Treme is that it includes the challenges of life, faces them head-on, but never forgets there is also joy to be fully experienced.  All of that -- the joys and the sorrows -- is wrapped up in the way the scripts handle music, cuisine and politics.  As you said, Dustin, these elements are built into the show organically, not explored as set pieces, which is almost always the case with television.

 

And the music ... more remarkable music passes by unobtrusively in the background than in any other show I've experienced places in the foreground.  But the fact that the music is woven into the story instead of being on front-and-center display is a great part of the power of this show.  And it's also remarkable when the music is front and center.  For instance, a week or two ago, the Steve Earle character and another character who wants to be a songwriter discuss what makes a good song and what makes a mediocre song.  The discussion -- and the visit to a show by a great song writer, John Hiatt -- was fascinating and rich.

 

Folks, if you don't have HBO, get the DVD for the first season.

Comment by Craig Young on June 6, 2011 at 8:07am
You nailed it brother!
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on June 6, 2011 at 9:19am

Thanks, Craig & David!  David, I must say that your comments are often more insightful than the writing your commenting upon.  Always much appreciated.  As a born-again, fundamentalist, hell-fire-and-brimstone evangelist for The Wire, I have to say there was a lot of joy and celebration in The Wire, too, though, admittedly not to the degree seen already in Treme.  As much as I love Treme, The Wire still stands as the masterwork to be topped in my opinion.  I wish like hell it were part of the country's literature curriculum in secondary schools.  Who needs Dickens when we have Simon?   Okay, enough of my Wire fundamentalism.

 

I, too, loved the scenes with Steve Earle's character and the Annie character discussing songwriting.  That whole vignette was so beautifully rendered over the course of two episodes.  I love the patience and restraint found in the storytelling.

Comment by Angel R on June 6, 2011 at 2:28pm

I live under a rock so I've never heard of this show, but now I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Thanks for the fascinating review.

 

Comment by andy aitken on June 7, 2011 at 3:53am

As a cave dweller in Scotland I too thank y'all for reviewing what sounds like another winner from HBO.

Loved the Wire and just know i'll love this too. Thank goodness for No Depression - casting light into dark places. Andy A

Comment by Steve Rauworth on June 7, 2011 at 5:40am
Yeah you right, Mr. Ogdin. 'Stremely well said, with one exception. If you love New Orleans and its culture as much as you apparently do, how can you not be as least as livid as Simon at the government caused flood and negligence that has threatened its existence, and changed it for the worse? Not to mention the general pubic ignorance about the importance of New Orleans, which you appreciate, and which Treme is helping to change. I think the characters who expressed outrage and told the blunt truth (John Goodman's foremost) were remarkably restrained, and I was fist-pumping with every long overdue word he and others said. And after all, it was only talk, and we who care and understand the crimes those in power committed and continue to commit had better start acting, or everything of real value in our country will be sacrificed to profit for the few. Finally, if you have seen series 1 to its end and what becomes of Cray (played by Goodman), you know Simon realizes the the perils of any one of us drinking too deep from the cup of bitterness.
Comment by Zendelle on June 7, 2011 at 5:57am
We found season one to be one long preachfest (and not just the first few episodes) about how New Orleans Is The Cultural Soul of America and How Could We Let This Happen?  I'm not disagreeing, just didn't needed to be hit over the head with it quite so many times. Still it was worth sitting through it to see Steve Earle and the Pine Leaf Boys and other great musicians. The last couple of episodes started to develop some semblance of a plot, so hopefully that will carry over to the second season. We'll give it another shot.
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on June 7, 2011 at 6:14am
@Steve - I don't begrudge Simon his political anger and political critiques; that's why I love him.  And, I love Goodman's character on the whole.  But, I think at times, Cray's role was to state part of the show's thesis in a less than artful way.  Of course, I agree with the positions expressed and, of course the anger and outrage is more than justified and widely held (first and foremost by the citizens of New Orleans, but also by many the world over.)  But, for me, having a character explicitly state, in the style of angry op-ed, their outrage and anger takes me out of the story more than SHOWING (sorry, no italics available) me how and why the anger is manifested.  Let's take The Wire, for instance.  That show was a deeply angry critique of the failed war on drugs, the prison industrial complex, and the devastating effects on a permanent underclass in America.  It was also a great work of art.  If a character in an early episode had made a speech telling the audience why the criminal justice system is so corrupt, etc., etc., it would have detracted from the power and resonance of showing us, through wholly realized characters and brilliant, slowly evolving plot lines.  I just think Simon was going a little Oliver Stone on us in the earliest episodes, telling us his thoughts explicitly rather than showing us in a way that, I think, is more effective both as a work of art and as a political tool.
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on June 7, 2011 at 6:22am
I agree, Zendelle, though my criticism is probably not quite as deeply held as yours.  I say give it another shot.
Comment by David Haskin on June 7, 2011 at 6:44am

I have another take on it, Zendelle.  Based on my visits there and people from there I've known, New Orleans people have always felt they weren't fully appreciated (and, yes, some of that could have been whining... I'm just sayin')  But since Katrina, passions have been extremely high by some people about how it was a man-made disaster, not a natural one, and that, as the worst of the disaster passed, the city was once again forgotten.  My own feeling was that the Cray character (John Goodman) was simply giving that passion a voice since it is part of the emotional landscape of the city, post-Katrina.

Now, I've visited N.O. a number of times and would certainly agree that some some elements in the city are quite full of themselves.  But, like I said, the anger is truly there now, along with the usual full-of-itselfness and that's how I took it, not as a preachfest.  And I agree with @Steve Rauworth that one of the beauties of the show is that, as he put it, Simon "realizes the perils ... of drinking too deep from the cup of bitterness."  

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.