12/10/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

With Treme, Blues at the Equinox

Is anyone out there watching the final season of Treme, David Simon's underappreciated series about New Orleans and, by extension, us?

Since its debut in 2010, which followed perhaps too closely on the heels of Simon's undisputed masterpiece, The Wire, most of the comments about Treme have focused on what it is not.

It's not thrilling. It's not suspenseful. It's not exciting.

It's true -- Treme is not really any of those things. Then again, unlike just about every other drama on television, it's also not about drugs, or counter-terrorism, or organized crime.

Two episodes into its fourth and final season on HBO, I'm struck by what this show is about -- the silent, almost imperceptible shift away from something original, raw and dysfunctional, towards something far more efficient, generic and mundane.

Treme is about modern society, and what it looks and feels like to be a human being at the equinox of hope and despair.

Consider the title of this season's opening episode: "Yes We Can." It's 2008, and the central characters of the show are awash in the glow of Barack Obama's historic presidential victory. But the glow lasts no more than five minutes before the reality of life in New Orleans intercedes to remind them (and us) of the work that remains to be done. A murderer escapes detection because the city's crime cameras haven't worked since Hurricane Katrina. A car gets eaten by one of the city's gaping potholes. And someone, arrested for a petty offense, dies senselessly of an asthma attack in a holding cell. "I keep waiting for someone to come through and clean this place out," says a frustrated detective.

There is, of course, a cleaning-out underway, but it's the kind that comes with a cost. Developers and change agents of all kinds see, in post-Katrina New Orleans, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove the dirt and dysfunction of the past. Housing projects are closed to their former inhabitants. Charter schools apply fresh coats of paint to formerly rotting public school buildings. And corporate interests have plans for a gleaming new jazz center in an abandoned municipal hall.

Change is coming to the Crescent City. Who could argue with that?

A lot of people, actually. As one resident says at a contentious community meeting: "We all like getting sanctified, but we don't like being gentrified!" But the genius of David Simon is that he doesn't give us clear heroes and villains; instead, everyone inhabits their own moral shade of gray. As one of the developers asks earnestly, in the face of so much resistance: "Why is everybody so pissed off in this town all the time?"

Why, indeed. And that's why the tone of this show is so perfect. Unlike the crumbling levees of 2005, there are no undeniable alarm bells to signal the post-Katrina crisis at hand -- which, at its core, is the diminution of New Orleans' distinctive culture, particularly its twin anchors: music and food. Instead, the alarm of gentrification is a dog whistle, which means only some can hear it. Others see merely the beautiful convergence of profit and progress, while the rest are left to endure the disinfecting scrub of modernity, which spreads silently like Hannah Arendt's definition of evil -- with neither depth nor dimension, like a fungus, over the surface of all things.

In the face of such banal reforms, and amidst the death and the betrayal, and the corruption and delay and disappointment, Treme reminds us of something that the rest of our popular entertainment seeks to skip over -- that the circle of life is our lone constant, in all its persistence and pathology. "What passes for love," the poet Bruce Weigl writes in Blues at the Equinox, "the miles and the years and the rivers crossed no one could name..."

... what passes for love
is not always the fierce blessing
the mortal lovers give--and then grow pale--

but sometimes one heart robbing another
in a rented room, a great sadness
and a great happiness, at the same time, descending.