Even the best television shows live or die by plotting and drama. Yes, The Wire, could be the greatest show in history (at least the last decade) and did push the boundaries of television narrative to new places, forcing us to slow down, pay attention and think. In terms of plot, it was hardly 24, maybe it’s the anti-24 (or maybe that’s Mad Men).
But new series need to get audiences excited about something and fast. Even the smartest audiences have little patience (and time). Let’s not forget the the first few episodes of The Wire teased us with a simple, bracing conceit: the police need to take down the drug ring. It took five or six episodes for audiences to realize resolution wasn’t coming soon and the narrative would grow slowly and operatically, thus making it more interesting. Even a sloth-paced series like Mad Men had the “who is Don Draper?” story in season one. Friday Night Lights had the “will this team make it without Jason Street?” question.
Treme is going to be different from The Wire (see this post from a new blog about Treme) . It probably won’t be as good — unless David Simon & Co. are truly the most brilliant people in television history. If it isn’t as good, what could go wrong?
Treme could fall into the “Caprica trap” — also known as the “every season of Heroes except the first” trap. Both shows started with a grand, bracing predecessor: Battlestar Galactica and Heroes season one. The first few episodes of Battlestar were “live or die,” full of drama, before the series slowed down and went all intellectual (that’s good!). The first season of Heroes used the most well-worn yet effective conceit in sci-fi drama: “the world’s going to end, we have to stop it.”
But Caprica forgot about story. The series, to which I’m still committed, hasn’t given us anything to hold on to. It’s merely plot and character for the sake of plot and character. The series writers probably assumed the drama was built-in, since Caprica is a prequel to the end of humankind. Yet the effect of knowing the eventual big bag hasn’t upped the ante, it’s squashed it. The series has not yet answered the question critical to great drama: why do we care?
Heroes, the last season in particular, has been mired in loose plotting. Sure, the characters have been exploring their personal histories and relationships, but to what end?
The Wire had wonderful characters, but it was the political and criminal tensions that propelled the story forward: and we had a goal, to take down the gangs. It turns out, of course, the gangs aren’t really the problem — or at least not the whole problem — but the boogie man worked. We stuck with it, and along the way we got a well-thought treatise about how America works (and fails).
Treme has a difficult plan, and it sounds vaguely Caprica/Heroes (2-4)-esque. Says the New York Times:
Whereas through its five seasons “The Wire” built a vivid portrait of urban America as seen through the prism of its institutions and professions …“Treme,” … tells its story not through a city’s institutions but through its individuals. It isn’t that “The Wire” lacked for distinctive characters: Omar, the homicidal ethicist; Bubbles, the embattled addict; D’Angelo Barksdale, the doomed-by-decency street dealer — there were scores of them. But because so many of the show’s story lines dramatized the futility of any of these characters’ attempts to break through social and economic ceilings, the image of contemporary urban America that the show offered was one in which character wasn’t fate so much as a fait accompli: in the land of the free market, Simon was arguing, free will wasn’t going to get you very far. In “Treme,” Simon seems to be arguing for the very opposite idea: the triumph of the individual will despite all impediments, a show about people, artists for the most part, whose daily lives depend upon the free exercise of their wills to create — out of nothing, out of moments — something beautiful.
The concern among Wire fans — who are zealously invested in the success of Treme, to a degree unfair to the series producers — is that Treme will lose all the “big, operatic” drama and settle for personal stories with little dramatic weight. Good characters are interesting, but characters have to do something and their lives have to mean something.
With New Orleans as a setting, the show will have plenty of chances for high stakes drama. Watching Trouble the Water recently, I realized how immense and ripe for storytelling post-Katrina New Orleans really is. It isn’t simply a depressed and forgotten region. There’s tension, activity and battles to be fought over. The intersections of government, corporations, tourism and community activists trying to rebuild — and failing to rebuild — an entire metropolitan is a complex story with all the makings of good drama, not to mention a whole host of lessons for the American public: how does this country fail us? How can we change it? Those are great questions, I would argue, for television.
I’m concerned but excited. Treme is the show I’ve been anticipating ever since I knew of its existence. The expectations are insurmountable, but I’m aware of them, so, as with The Wire, I’ll be patient and open. Until next month!