TV Review: 'Treme' Is No 'Wire'

If god is indeed in the details, then David Simon will someday make a most promising candidate for beatification. Simon has already come as close to living sainthood as a keyboard can get you. With The Wire, he created a dystopian simulacrum of Baltimore so sprawling and ambitious that it's often (and justifiably) called the best television show ever made. His affinity for obsessively researched detail and his authenticity-über-alles ethos stem from his abiding love of journalism—before TV, he was a reporter at The Baltimore Sun—which is all about respecting people's stories enough to get them right. Treme, Simon's latest drama, is proof that you can get everything just right, and still not get it quite right.

Treme fits neatly into the Simonian tradition. This time, his microcosm of choice is post-Katrina New Orleans, which has become the civics nerd's favorite fishbowl since all the water drained out of it. The themes are familiar: urban decay, the failure of elected officials to serve their constituencies, the complex truths behind societal ills, all of which incorporate some kind of African-American suffering. Treme isn't a bayou facsimile of The Wire—it's not as overtly political, for one—but it is another lengthy, heavily footnoted love letter to an American city. The actors are just the supporting cast. New Orleans is the main character, and capturing its authentic essence is Treme's chief ambition.

Authenticity has become the linchpin of Simon's work. His first miniseries, The Corner, offered a lived-in portrayal of a Baltimore family torn apart by drugs, but it employed a raw, vérité style that ushered the audience into the family's world. But by the time Simon turned to the cops-and-corner-boys world of The Wire, the authenticity manifested as inaccessibility. The Wire was known for dropping viewers into an unfamiliar world and expecting them to do the work of figuring out what was going on. It was an exercise in patience, and the reason fans of the show are so evangelical is the same reason men with six-pack abs walk around shirtless—getting there was hard work, making the fruit of their labor that much sweeter.

The onus is on the viewer again in Treme to decode Simon's N'awlins, its music culture, cuisine, and customs. But Treme is neither as intimate as The Corner nor as vast as The Wire. It feels as if it wants to be a smaller-scale story about the people who had their lives washed away, but Simon doesn't treat his characters like people as much as walking ambassadors for the most esoteric details of NOLA culture. There's a telling scene in one episode in which a busload of gawking tourists drives through as part of a "Katrina tour." The locals feel put upon, and the driver is callous. "People just want to see what happened here," he says. If the goal of Treme is to eschew that kind of detached, voyeuristic experience, Simon will have to focus less on how New Orleans shapes its people, and more on how the people shape New Orleans.