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treme, season two finale

The backlash has begun against Treme. It’s never been particularly popular, and no matter how many of us love it, the tendency to compare it to The Wire is apparently irresistible for some people, when the only thing the two shows have in common is David Simon.

I’ve obsessed a bit lately about the difference between “favorite” and “best,” and Treme might be a good example. Throughout Season Two, it was my favorite show of the week. Game of Thrones was “better,” I suppose, although comparing the two is about as useful as comparing Treme and The Wire. I admit that I’m surprised at the rising meme that Treme is somehow unlikeable, though, since for me, it is likable above all else. Many of the supposed flaws are, to my mind, no such thing. Rubicon, to take an already-forgotten show I thought was quite good, was arguably the most slow-paced series I’ve ever seen, and criticisms of that pace were deserved, although I got over it myself. Treme’s version of slow-paced is different, though. If you are looking for shows where “something happens” every episode, you’ll find Treme slow. But while Rubicon existed in the murky world of paranoid spy thrillers, and thus invited at least some sense that it would move forward, Treme is not about moving forward in the way that satisfies those who want each episode wrapped up in a ribbon. Treme is a character study about a particular time and place that exists in the real world, and the concept of forward movement is subtle. But it is real.

On the one hand, the government isn’t any more helpful to the people of New Orleans at the end of Season Two than they were at the beginning of Season One. In that sense, nothing happens. But the individual people are moving forward without the government’s help, and even when the movement comes at a snail’s pace, each small step is rewarding. In an interview, Simon said:

[M]ost of what passes for current events in the world, we experience intellectually. Our lives are about the day-to-day.

And these are ordinary people. We're not doing a show about mayors and police chiefs and recon Marines who are invading a country. We're doing a show about people who are trying to reconstitute their city or their culture just as a means of getting through the day, not because they're on a mission. Most of them are NOT on a mission. Some of them are politicized, to an extent. But for most of them, life is about the day-to-day. …

We're locked into ordinary people experiencing ordinary life in a place that is a little bit extraordinary.

Simon has also been accused of being too soft on New Orleans; he treats it like a besotted tourist rather than with the tough journalist’s eye he applied to The Wire. I can only wonder what people who think this are watching. In Season Two, New Orleans is still struggling with the aftermath of Katrina. What little hope there might have been that help was coming from the government is long past. Crime is on the rise. What does happen in Treme that is different from The Wire is that the characters still have hope, in themselves if not their government, and they are taking those small steps. Simon again:

I'm not proud to be an American in every respect, but I'm exceptionally proud when I see New Orleans reconstituting itself after that storm, and doing it by lifting its own bootstraps, and with some genuine indifference from the rest of the country. … [T]here are things about the American spirit that I admire very much, and that make me think that I do not belong anywhere else in the world but here.

And so, for the most part, the season finale was hopeful and brought smiles and tears of happiness, which is unusual for a David Simon series. These people have moved forward, no matter how little has been their advance. And, because the show draws such vibrant characters, we care about those small advances.

And then there is the music. Music is everywhere in Treme; a legitimate criticism could be made that there isn’t enough, since most performances are truncated. Some suggest the music we hear isn’t always of the highest quality. But that barely matters, because in most cases, we experience the music being played for an audience, on the streets of New Orleans or in its clubs, and the connection between performer and audience is electric. I can remember once, 40 years ago, when some friends and I ended up in a pizza parlor where an electric guitarist and bassist were playing music as we ate and drank. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the what-the-hell aspect of hearing this in a place where pizza is the point, but the audience (maybe two dozen of us) and the guitarist were locked into each other. For that one night, he was the greatest guitarist in the world. Treme is full of such moments, and the quality of the actual music matters far less than the quality of the crowds.

Treme is definitely a watch-it-on-a-weekend kind of show, for you Netflix folks out there waiting for it to be released on home video. Grade for finale: A. Grade for Season Two: A.