Most complaints about Treme center around the show’s lack of narrative drive, the way it seems to have a ton of people hanging around and not really doing anything. Conversely, that was why I loved the show so much when it began. When the show tried to tell big stories, to in a way address that “problem,” I found it to increasingly drag in the last two seasons. By focusing so intently on the ordinary events of life, the parades and shows and meals and everything else that we fill our time with, there was a sort of glorification of people themselves. Characters didn’t need to be doing anything particularly vital, like solving crimes or stirring up trouble, to be important. They just needed to be themselves, and with this there was also a sense that the cast could’ve been made up of practically anyone from New Orleans, even though there was a pretty conscious and obvious effort on the part of David Simon and his collaborators to put the spotlight on New Orleans’ artists.
The historical bent of the show was actually a perfect match for this ordinariness, simply because political and social events are always happening in the background and making up the backdrop of our lives. Whether or not they’re important, they’re occurring, and no one lives in a complete void from these things, even when they desperately wish to. But it seemed almost as if Simon listened to complaints about the early seasons and tried to remedy this with an abundance of plot in the second two, with crime mysteries and court drama filling up the time rather than people hanging out drinking or doing their day-to-day work tearing down buildings. The Wire was one of the best plotted shows in the history of television, but the moment Treme tried to replicate any of this formula, the show always seemed to stumble. Heightened drama was simply too much of a contrast to everything else, and while Treme was never bad, it did seem confused and, all of a sudden, meandering in a bad way.
As such, I had little anticipation for Treme’s final season, fearing that it would continue shoehorning that sort of melodrama into a show that’s at its best when the conflict is something as simple as a badly cooked meal. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself mistaken. Instead of dealing with “important” matters, we had time spent on a 14-year-old boy who has the clap and LaDonna explaining to her children that they need to stay with her stepfather for a while longer. There was Davis discovering a bold new musician and Annie worrying about if she should take her slimy producer’s advice and record her next album with studio musicians in Nashville in the hope of a crossover hit. Throughout all of this there was still the intense mix of food, politics and music that drives the show, but with a focus on characters’ problems that felt important to them, rather than important intrinsically.
Even the crime-centered events felt handled a little defter than in the past, or at least with more precision. When Sonny witnesses the death of a prisoner firsthand due to egregious conditions in jail (even the overnight drunk tank), it leads to investigations on the part of Toni and Terry as to what exactly is going on with the police. That’s always been a question of the show, but by linking this with another cast member it finally made one of these crimes feel real in a way that hasn’t always happened in the past. There’s still a sort of slice-of-life element to all of this, with Sonny being picked up for pissing in public, that keeps the whole thing more level with the rest Treme.
Sonny’s involvement here was also indicative of much more deftness in circulating the show’s cast in general. Finally, we’re at the point where everyone more or less knows each other, so the stories aren’t quite so disparate. This is likely the result of HBO only giving the show a five-episode order, but it also did wonders for a show spinning so many stories at the same time. The isolation that crept into previous seasons is gone, and now it feels like there’s a community back in New Orleans again.
Maybe that was intentional commentary on the city and maybe not, but in any case it makes it feel like the city is really returning, and that seems underscored by the opening of “Yes, We Can” (not to mention the episode’s title). Sure, it was all more than a bit heavy-handed, but oh well. The election was still both larger-than-life—Obama’s election being a defining event for our country if there ever was one—and just another day, since afterwards life continues the same as before for everyone who voted. Yet Treme, like life most of the time, is about the accumulation of these everyday events, the way they really do add up to something that matters. It was a little thing, but there does seem to be a spring in the entire casts’ step after Obama is inaugurated. Treme has had a bumpier run than might have been expected, but it looks like we may be getting the killer party at the end that the show, and city, deserve.