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Will ‘Treme’ Fall Into the ‘Caprica’ Trap?

Aymar Jean Christian March 26, 2010 uncategorized 11 Comments

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!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

11 Comments

  1. Machelle Allman March 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I agree. The opening here, I think, is that by switching from the motif of how institutions “hold down” to how individuals “rise above” more attention can be given to female storylines. Beadie was the only character in ‘The Wire’ to which we got anywhere close to a 360 degree view, (maybe Rhonda Pearlman). Alan Sepinwall has already tweeted to not go into Treme expecting ‘The Wire 2: The Squeakuel,’ so I’m taking that advice. It’ll be phenomenal TV, but something different.
    (Linked.)

  2. B. Knight March 27, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Absolutely. You’ve perfectly encapsulated all the reasons why The Wire was such compelling drama, and why shows like Caprica fail to engage the audience in the same way.

  3. Derek Lee McPhatter March 27, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    yes its true, but I would also note on Battlestar, they actually waited a few seasons before slowing down in any significant fashion. And by that time, the show was already a success.

    What starts as a clever re-boot of an easy “humans-vs.-robots-space-battle-star wars-clone” became exponentially more compelling. Like the Wire, maintaining a consistent distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys,” became impossible. And the show presented multiple ways to “make meaning” out of the plot. (in terms of spiritual beliefs and political worldviews, etc.)

    Yet it REFUSED to satisfy the audience by ever clearly stating “this is the right (or at least plausible) way to look at it.” All of that was going on, while promising (through foreshadowing and some classic sci-fi plot devices) that, one way or another, THE END would provide the answers the characters (and the audience) so desperately needed. Yes, Battlestar was about endings, it was about seeking conclusion in so many ways. This made the build-up over each season an excruciating delight, and also explains why the producers suspected the series finale could never live up to expectations.

    And I also think that is why they wanted to try a different tack with Caprica. What Caprica promises Battlestar fans is the possibility for more clarity on some of those MAJOR QUESTIONS. Whether that’s compelling enough to keep the core fans watching is a great question. Whether or not that approach is going to build another viewership for the franchise, I think has been answered by this post. Probably not.

  4. Aymar Jean Christian March 27, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    You’re right about women, I think. I know! We all want “The Wire 2,” but it’s unfair and probably uninteresting to expect it. We’re all holding our breath!

  5. Aymar Jean Christian March 27, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Mmmm. That’s interesting. Yes, I’m one of those new fans, so I’m missing this underlying intellectual investment about trying to resolve some of the theoretical/moral/narrative rough spots of the original. Fortunately, I suppose, for HBO and David Simon, they’re dealing with a completely new story, but they’re also burdened by expectations of storytelling (in particular, grandeur) that I think Caprica is similarly burdened by. At least that’s my understanding.

  6. Aymar Jean Christian March 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    By the way, thanks for linking!

  7. RandomDrunk March 27, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    I think your anticipation of this series has caused you to worry about things you shouldn’t be worrying about. I mean, can we atleast wait to see the pilot before comparing it to other shows?

    “The concern among Wire fans is that Treme will lose all the “big, operatic” drama and settle for personal stories with little dramatic weight.”

    Really? I’m as big of a Wire fan as anybody and have been reading up on Treme as much as possible, but I’ve never heard any worries like this. A David Simon production with “little dramatic weight”? That sentence basically contradicts itself.

    Listen, DS and company have wanted to do a show about New Orleans since before Katrina ever happened. That means Treme has been in the making for about 6-7 years now. Do you REALLY think after rattling around in David Simon’s head for that long this show will be like Caprica and be “merely plot and character for the sake of plot and character.” C’moooon. I think after The Wire these people would have gained more of your trust than that.

  8. Machelle Allman March 27, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    RandomDrunk, I don’t think that the implication is that the production will have little dramatic weight. A little speculation before the premiere is a fun exercise, especially because we have The Wire as our canon of material to draw upon. Part of why the Wire was so engrossing, in my view, is the house-of-cards aspect. If McNulty can’t hold himself together, he’ll blow the case. If Lester bucks the system too hard, he’ll blow the case. If Stringer plays both sides against the middle too much, he’ll ruin his organization. Simon himself (The HBO Auteur, NYTimes) has said that Treme will not have that overarching case, or organization, as a structural point. So what does that leave us with? Times are tough? It’s hard to rebuild a city? That’s where the dramatic weight comes in–if a character in Treme doesn’t meet his goal, what are the ripple effects outward? I agree, watch and see, I’m still expecting this to be the best thing going, but how will the characters relate to the big picture? That’s my question.

  9. Aymar Jean Christian March 28, 2010 at 4:41 am

    Yes, I agree with Machelle: big picture. But I agree with your general sentiment, RandomDrunk. I’m just engaging in some harmless and stimulating speculation. I also think it’s important to acknowledge the high expectations “Treme” has to overcome. It’s my way of lowering my expectations so I won’t be disappointed.

    BTW, You’d be surprised how unremarkable a film or TV show that’s long in development can turn out. After all, let’s not forgot James Cameron took, what, a decade to write “Avatar”? Now, David Simon’s about 100x smarter than James Cameron, but still. Nobody’s perfect! And good television is hard to master. Even the most successful television writers/producers have their failures. Actually, every successful television writer/producer has a failure.

  10. Christiane Badgley March 28, 2010 at 5:26 am

    Well, you still have a few days to wait. Why worry? I suggest checking out this great documentary on Treme, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans by Dawn Logsdon and “Treme” staff writer Lolis Eric Elie. Essential history, great music and viewing pleasure to get you in the groove!!!

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