One of the main ambitions of Treme has been to connect the disparate worlds of New Orleans into a somewhat coherent whole. That means the music and the food, sure, but also the crime and the poverty and the racism. Unfortunately, that has also been one of its primary difficulties, as it’s been a struggle to make this aim end up more than simply descriptive. Watching the show, we always get a sense of what New Orleans is like, and to a certain extent how it fits together, but drawing meaning from this is sometimes beyond the show’s abilities. Even more difficult, though, is to give all of these parts equal shares, since, when contrasted against each other, certain parts are clearly more dramatic and important than others.
“This City” was filled with very dense drama that once again threatened to drag the rest of the show down, at least tonally speaking. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as the more intense moments of life are certainly important and not something to ignore, but it was the contrast that made this a difficult episode of Treme. When one of Antoine’s students is there when her boyfriend is gunned down, and by the end of the episode is shot herself, this context sucks away nearly everything else in the episode. Aside from this string of murders, we have the continued investigation into a death in the New Orleans prison last week and the pronouncement that Albert’s cancer has spread to his liver (and, off-screen, that there’s no point in him continuing chemotherapy). To say that that’s a lot of death and misery for an hour of television would be a vast understatement.
To Treme’s credit, every one of these storylines was well-done, even if the show’s hands were, at times, extremely heavy. Let’s face it, there were cliches here, with Albert reminiscing and Tony exploding at Terry not the subtlest moments in the show’s history. But they felt true and were so well-acted that these narrative problems were barely an issue. We were being told how to feel in several instances of “This City,” but the feelings were still genuine.
The bigger problem was that these stories were interwoven, as ever, with plenty of smaller material that, in this context, felt irrelevant and even a little strange. Annie’s label concerns couldn’t have seemed more petty, and while the concert she attended was fun, cross-cutting it with the life-or-death concerns of the rest of Treme does it no justice. These stories matter, but the crimes of Treme will always overshadow the show’s artistic concerns, even when they’re linked. This schizophrenic approach to storytelling means that very little feels truly satisfying, because normally speaking these storylines are the concerns of very different shows.
While there are problems with this constant juxtaposition and the uncertainty it creates as to what Treme is really about, there’s still something to be said for the boldness of this approach. Until this fourth season, Treme has been largely indifferent about the connections between its characters. This gave the show realism and a sort of integrity that I respected, but conversely it didn’t make for the best storytelling. Now, though, with every character being just one removed from every other, it not only makes for a coherent New Orleans community, it lends this intense dramatic weight to everyone in the cast. The effects of the show’s crimes and deaths trickle down to everyone in the area, and it eases the strangeness of an episode focused on deaths featuring multiple ecstatic musical performances.
It’s a Dickensian approach to television that calls into mind David Simon’s previous show, The Wire, for obvious reasons. It also requires stretches of credulity, but ultimately one of the things Treme (and every show Simon has made) sometimes needs to be reminded of is that good storytelling requires the occasional step away from realism. In previous seasons of Treme, New Orleans often felt vast and the interactions between its characters coincidental to the point of absurdity. With that no longer the case, the death of a schoolgirl echoes throughout the community, even when its direct effects can hardly be felt. I won’t pretend that everything in “This City” fit together well, but that it fit at all was an impressive feat, and it seems petty to criticize a show this audacious for never quite succeeding on all fronts—that it gets this close is a small miracle.