After releasing a breakthrough first novel, it's not uncommon for writers to have a particular reaction to the challenge of producing a follow-up: they choke. Zadie Smith and Mark Haddon both fell victim to Second Novel Syndrome; and in one of the more dramatic casualties -- after decades of work and hundreds of aborted pages -- Ralph Ellison never quite managed to eke out his long-awaited second manuscript. With four TV shows and twelve years at the Baltimore Sun's City Desk under his belt, David Simon is by no means an amateur writer, but still, the prospect of unveiling a new project after masterminding what's widely considered the best show ever aired on TV has got to come with at least a little bit of pressure.
To compound the matter, when Simon first announced that he was working on a show about post-Katrina New Orleans, excitement about the news was rivaled by an equal degree of skepticism. After all, Simon knew Baltimore--he went to college in Maryland, worked the crime beat at the Sun, and spent years making the city his home. New Orleans, however, was a different story, and it wasn't his.
But if the first episode of Treme is any indication, Simon fans and defensive New Orleanians can relax. For all the hype building up to Treme's release--a New York Times Magazine cover, a "Fresh Air" interview, multiple Twitter countdowns--the show reflects the best of Simon's ability, and avoids the pitfall of transplanting inner city Baltimore eleven hundred miles further south. Unlike The Wire, which Simon famously described as "a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces," Treme strikes a distinctly more human tone. Broadly speaking, the show is about musicians rebuilding their lives in a battered city, and Simon isn't out to impose any kind of overarching agenda. If The Wire is at least partly about the culture of crime that grew up out of institutional failure, then Treme is simply about the culture of perseverance (and the perseverance of culture) that rise up when everything else goes to hell.
Appropriately, the most striking aspect of the show is its music. The beginning of the first episode opens with a familiar face--Wendell Pierce, formerly Detective Bunk Moreland, now trombonist Antoine Batiste--running late for a jazz parade and unable to cover the taxi fare. (In a jab to musicians, Batiste's chronic brokeness is a running gag throughout the show). The parade's music lures Davis McAlary (a wise-ass local DJ played by Steve Zahn) out into the streets, and a later, especially entertaining scene pits McAlary's NOLA hip-hop against his neighbors' more classical taste. To his credit, while Simon's soundtrack gives the city a voice--and counters the idea that jazz is the city's only native musical son--what's equally arresting is the show's use of silence. It took New Orleans three years to recover two-thirds of its pre-Katrina population, and Treme is shot only three months after the storm. For as much attention as Simon pays to survivors, the city's ghosts are never far off.
As he likes to do, Simon tackles the big themes of the Big Easy though a carefully chosen ensemble cast. There's a musician, a DJ, a chef and a civil-rights attorney, not to mention an irascible John Goodman unable to stop dropping f-bombs while granting interviews about Katrina. (He's an English professor). Clarke Peters, last seen as Lester Freamon, returns as Albert Lambreaux, a repatriated Mardi Gras chief who produces the show's most visually memorable moment while dancing down the street in his best parade gear. Many of the show's characters take their inspiration from real life (Goodman and Zahn are based off of a local blogger and jazz DJ, respectively) and in honor of the premiere, the Times-Picayune is running a series on the New Orleanians behind Treme characters.
We're only one episode in, but the show is clearly running on Simon's narrative metabolism--there aren't any cliffhangers to lure viewers back the following week, and Treme betrays few of the tics that viewers have come to expect from TV writing. This takes a while to get used to, but it seems well suited to the city at hand. Additionally, it lets Simon play to his strength: taking his time to develop complexity. It's been said that this kind of narrative leisure is a luxury only afforded at HBO, but in terms of how well it works, it's not HBO, it's David Simon.
In what threatens to become an unfortunate sound byte, Simon described New Orleans to the Times as a city that produces moments. "Detroit used to make cars," Simon told Wyatt Mason. "Baltimore used to make steel and ships. New Orleans still makes something. It makes moments." This is undoubtedly cheesy (which Simon acknowledges) but when taken seriously, it's also how Treme avoids feeling like cultural tourism. It's the show's moments that stand out, and they do so with striking vividness. It's too early, and generally pointless, to speculate whether Treme will be better than The Wire, but for the time being, it's off to a great start.