Friday, May 20, 2011
Last September, FX premiered a show about two private eyes called Terriers. The show had a sunny setting in Ocean Beach, an eclectic township of San Diego. It had two dynamic leads in the perpetually underrated Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James, who played the Cajun-accented bad guy in the first season of True Blood. Terriers was exceptionally well-written and engaging, and the more episodes you watched, the more hooked you became. It also had an absolute masterpiece of an opening credit sequence. Take a look.
Four months later, despite a fervent cult following, Terriers was canceled. Most fans blamed the failure on a miserable and confusing dog-centric marketing campaign, though FX President John Landgraf adamantly denies this. (As one AV Club post mentioned, why not just play the theme song in commercials?) Either way, a really terrific show was cut down before it had a chance.
Contrast this with HBO, which last week renewed Treme for a third season just a few episodes into its second. David Simon's sprawling drama is set in New Orleans in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, but finding an audience has been difficult. The second season premiere of Treme drew a paltry viewership of 605,000. We're talking nationwide. That number isn't entirely accurate, since many HBO viewers may have DVRed the episode (not sure if those numbers are counted), and even more may have downloaded it illegally. Still, that's not many people. It's less than the entire population of the Boise metro area. That number is also slightly over half of Treme's series premiere a year ago. Still, HBO renewed it, and they renewed it because HBO's programming philosophy prizes quality over ratings. What kind of company does that? Why don't more companies do that?
But none of that really matters. What matters to every viewer is one question: should you watch Treme? It doesn't matter whether Treme is really well made or has great camera work or whether it's important to see. That's what someone asked me this week: should I watch this? And I didn't say 'yes'.
Like The Wire, another David Simon creation which I regard as the best television show ever made, Treme is a sprawling ensemble. Characters may intersect and they may not, but they all represent the tapestry of a dying American city. Like The Wire, viewers are rewarded over the long run. Just now, after wrapping up the third episode of the second season, I feel like I'm finally being immersed in the world Simon is weaving. A common early complaint of Treme was it seemed intent on reminding viewers they weren't cool enough to watch. Some characters had naked disdain for outsiders and tourists. This was an issue with The Wire, too, but the intrigue and action of the drug trade in inner-city Baltimore was enough to offset any larger aspirations. The Wire may have been about the death of a city in the grand scheme of things, but watching McNulty and Bunk work a murder scene was thrilling enough to throw you off the show's importance.
So, like I said, I'm getting there with Treme. I'm beginning to care deeply about the characters, and, as usual, David Simon reveals enough layers and conflicting motivations that no one is fully good or bad. In the last episode I watched, a character who could've been considered Season 1's most loathsome is revealed quietly as a hero, and it's the sort of turn that makes sense, both in David Simon's storytelling and in real life. It's nice to remember David Simon doesn't write one-note characters, especially when this season's biggest introduction is a smarmy Republican mover and shaker from Dallas.
While Season 2 is pulling me in, I think my biggest complaint was Anthony Bourdain brought in to handle Chef Janette Desautel's (played by Kim Dickens) storyline. I like No Reservations, but Bourdain's driving motivation in life seems to be proving he's a badass when he's clearly not. There's a lot of that posturing in Desautel's thread, with Bourdain taking out real world grudges through his script. Mainly, the storyline and restaurant characters just don't feel worthy of a David Simon arc. It'll get better if Bourdain can manage to drop the whole "food preparation is the most hardcore lifestyle in the world, man" act.
Treme isn't appointment viewing. I usually wait a few days after an episode airs to actually see it, and I doubt it draws many viewers into the sort of insomniac DVD binges shows like The Sopranos brought out. It's getting stronger, though, and I can't applaud HBO enough for hanging in there. Patience and attention to quality is why HBO is still the best place for hour-long dramas, and FX's decision to drop Terriers is why they're a distant third behind AMC.
Here's the Treme opening credits, just because they're awesome.