Television comes of age

Treme: Television comes of age

Khandi Alexander

If the novel was the important art form of the 19th century, and if film spoke to the 20th, television seems set to give voice to the 21st.

Long the bastard child of theatre and film, mocked by hipsters and intellectuals, reviled by moralists for the corruption and debasement of youth, television — the idiot box, the boob tube, the glass teat — there is no longer any excuse to presume the medium itself is incapable of producing art.

The signs have been there for a while. Programs like the sadly-aborted Deadwood, the sometimes brilliant failure that was Battlestar Galactica and, arguably leading the way, David Simon's The Wire, all served notice that creators were able and producers willing to take a chance and explore what is possible in a dramatic presentation that is 50 hours long.

But even The Wire didn't manage, quite, to escape the fetters and shackles, the tropes and assumptions, of genre. An attempt to answer Tolstoy's challenge to portray a society in toto, that remarkable and remarkably accomplished program attempted to show the decline of the one-time industrial city of Baltimore, through the eyes of its cops and it criminals, its union bosses and working men, its journalists and politicians.

As good as it was, though, The Wire still felt like a police procedural at some times, like an issue-of-the-weak melodrama at others.

With Treme David Simon and Eric Overmyer appear to have served notice that they are ready to take television to its next level. (That HBO is ready to pay for it — the program has already been renewed for a third season — may be just as remarkable.)

Through two seasons now, Treme transcends genre. Though one of its major players is a cop, it is not a police procedural; though one is a lawyer, it is not a legal drama. Though it features drug users and sometimes violence, it is not a medical drama or a crime show. Nor is it a soap opera or an Issue program, even if it features both love affairs and is set against the backdrop of a city traumatized physically and in control of criminals with badges and briefcases. It is not a family drama or a comedy, though it features children and boasts many comic moments.

It isn't even a musical, though music runs through every episode — as it should, because what Treme is, is a drama about a city and its culture in general and, specifically, about a large and varied cast of people who in their own ways, are deeply and sometimes passionately, in love with their city.

Treme is an attempt to portray the entirety of a society, from top to bottom, and Simon has, courageously, chosen to work with the genre crutches he could not quite give up with The Wire.

And so Treme is a powerful and thoroughly compelling series of narratives about a large and varied group of mostly working-class men and women who are, perhaps, the most subtly-drawn characters ever presented in drama, literature and certainly even in film and television.

If the program can be said to be "about" anything, it is perseverance. With notable exceptions, Simon and Overmyer's characters are not quitters. They are men and women who follow their dreams, or try to, no matter the odds (and yes, some of them break).

Set in a small city of fewer than 350,000, but with a murder rate 50 per 100,000 persons, violence happens in Treme, but it is rare, brief, always shocking and never pornographic.

Just as it is not a cop show, Treme is not about violence or the decay in which violence grows with such fecund abandon.

Quite the opposite. If Treme is "about" anything, it is about Life, about (to crib from Kim Stanley Robinson) veriditas, the eternal urge of life to surge upwards towards the light, make even more complex that which already is.

In its very successful attempt to paint a complex series of detailed and interconnected portraits of the human condition in a specific time and place, Treme shows every sign of achieving the universal.

I realize it is a work in progress, yet I feel confident it is a masterpiece in progress — and I have barely even mentioned the marvellous music!

The first season is out on video. Be prepared for a marvellous experience.

Meanwhile, I intend to put my own enthusiasm to the test, and, taking a leaf from Kate Nepveu's recently completed re-read of The Lord of the Rings re-watch the program from the beginning. I think it will be a fascinating journey, and all the more so if you join me. I'll be posting a new review every second Thursday at Ed-rex.com. Click here for the main page. Or sign up to the Edifice Rex Update mailing list to be informed whenever something new is posted here!

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