Just when you think television is a vast wasteland of reality shows or “dramas” that feature puddles of blood from gunshot wounds oozing across the screen, along comes an HBO show like Treme that disrupts the paridigm – a show that educates as well as entertains and does it with class and style. From the same producers who created The Wire, Treme examines in exquisite detail the lives of a disparate group of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc on the city. It is a story of greed and ignorance, corruption and racism and it is a powerful argument for why New Orleans matters.
Treme is the nickname for the neighborhood across St. Charles Street from the storied French Quarter. It’s a place most tourists never see. It’s where the ordinary residents of New Orleans live according to the rhythms and traditions that have defined this place on the banks of the Mississippi River for more than 400 years.
New Orleans is a silly place to have a city, actually. Much of it is below sea level and thus subject to catastrophic flooding on a regular basis. It is unbearably hot and humid much of the year. It is infested with a thousand kinds of insects and other pests, not to mention alligators in the bayous that surround it. It is no wonder this is the place the English chose when they expelled French settlers from Nova Scotia. They believed, with some reason, that human beings could not possibly live in this inhospitable location.
Since the 1600’s, New Oleans has been the crossroads of the Caribbean, a pastiche of cultural influences from Spain, France, Africa, England, the Netherlands, Trinidad, Tobago, and every place in between. Just down the Mississippi and past the delta is the Gulf of Mexico with its wealth of fresh seafood. Some say the region’s famous andouille sausage is made from alligator meat. With all those influences, it is no wonder the food of the region is spectacularly delicious!
And then, on August 29, 2005, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States brought unimaginable destruction to New Orleans. Tens of thousands were trapped by the flood waters. Whole sections of the city were inundated. Neighborhoods were wiped out. The economy of the region was destroyed. And all across America, the prevailing attitude was “Serves ’em right for being stupid enough to live there.” A racist nation saw all those black faces huddled in misery inside the SuperDome and was unmoved by their suffering. There was much talk of saving taxpayer dollars by simply abandoning New Orleans and rebuilding it someplace else that was more habitable – like Peoria.
Over the course of 4 seasons, the producers of Treme introduced us to the soul of New Orleans by exposing us to its post-Katrina anguish and pain. We hear the vox populii of real people struggling to rebuild their shattered lives against a background of government incompetence, police brutality, political corruption and economic opportunism by outsiders looking to make a quick buck from the devastation. Yet the factor that unites all the characters and allows viewers to identify with them is the music. The show’s soundtrack is the very best I have ever heard. It is not all Dixieland from Preservation Hall but an amalgam of modern jazz, alternative jazz, blues, Cajun and even bounce, all mixed together and stirred up like a fine New Orleans gumbo. The music illuminates the soul of New Orleans culture and makes us pray for its survival.
The show is unflinching in its examination of the troubles that beset the city after Katrina. Yet it is also a love song for the cultural crosscurrents that create the richness of life in New Orleans. It shows us why America should care about the city, its people and its culture. There’s no way Peoria could ever be like this!