Great television, the truly transformative works that approach the narrative heights of investigative street-level (and street smart) journalism or the rarified air of the Great American novel, forces us to pay attention to the thematic details buried in all of that beautiful quicksilver prose. Secrets and hidden meaning hide, sometimes in plain sight, deep in the story. That’s what I have loved about each and every project from the mind of David Simon. The man never stops digging into his setting, characters, or themes, and he doesn’t take us, his audience for chumps – even when his network/cable partners do – because he’s doggedly willing to believe that we’re open to the possibility of the truth actually setting us free. Maybe not all at once, or at the same convenient time, but he has spent several careers (years as a crime beat reporter in Baltimore before prowling the executive byways of the studio system producing shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, and now Treme) committed to a pursuit of laying the facts before us and trusting that we will have a come to Jesus moment.
The third season of Treme, available November 19th on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download, tracks New Orleans, two years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, as the city and its diverse citizens struggle to pick themselves up and move forward as only the Crescent City can. This is a historic city of beauty and distinctive tastes that is also terminally corrupt, as most cities are, but New Orleans seems more capable than most of embracing this aspect of its nature like snakebite antidote laced with a more than healthy dose of the potent poisonous venom.
Over the course of ten episodes, we see the inner workings of duplicitous state and federal government agencies, apathetic public safety divisions, a hopeless (and hapless) school system, and the inevitable clash with fractured and fragmented individuals pushing boulders up different sides of the same monumental hill, only to have the stones roll right over them again and again. But each and every episode revels in a sensory experience like no other show on television. The collected creative and production team guarantees that we will see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the atmosphere because it wafts off the screen into our homes, surrounding us, seeping into our pores.
What matters most though, is the a-ha that jars the sensibilities, heightening our awareness and appreciation. That moment comes in Episode 7 (“Promised Land”) when Homicide Detective Terry Colson (David Morse), while walking the streets, encounters another officer who asks him about living and surviving in the city. Colson distills things to a choice between vice versus sin, the idea of human fallibility opposite the purity of evil in the world. “Vice,” he says, “teaches us about our humanity. There is joy just one step away.” He pauses to let that sink in before going on to sin, which is “past joy. In darkness.”
He’s getting at the notion that vice tempts us all and, more importantly, we all succumb to its charms, but a little slip won’t do us in. We slip, we stumble, and fall even, but we get back up. We right ourselves and we move on. Of course that doesn’t mean we don’t or won’t fall again. This is in the realm of the Biblical sense of forgiveness. In the getting up, that’s us asking or seeking forgiveness, and as long as we keep pulling ourselves up, that’s what we will get. Sin, though, that’s when and where there’s no asking or seeking of forgiveness, within ourselves or from others that we’ve wronged. There’s no striving for joy. That’s where you land once you’ve killed joy and let the carcass to rot.
New Orleans, Treme posits, is a city of vice with a people rising up for forgiveness each and every day following nights and fleeting instances of joy. The quintessential example of this spirit is trombonist Antoine Baptiste (Wendell Pierce, formerly of The Wire), a New Orleans musician through and through who plays and plays around, but longs to do the right thing. Season Three finds Baptiste working in the classroom with high school students, imparting the feel and swing, but coming to realize that they need something more, a sacrifice of time and talent beyond the daytime, and he responds to the call, which makes his more human moments, his embrace of his own vices, understandable. Vice can be a reward, maybe for virtue.
We see this play out amongst the other characters, the writers, lawyers, chefs, musicians and lovers (well, aren’t they all lovers). And the show holds up a mirror for us. Aren’t we all lovers, caught in the throes of the struggle, afraid of our vices, when it is sin that is the killer? I watched this third season, but I will carry the lesson of “Promised Land” like gospel in my heart from now on. I will quote it because it speaks to the human condition like…only New Orleans can.