A jazz thing

The Sopranos ended in 2007, The Wire in 2008. So, what did HBO do next? Well, it gave the creators of those two epic, HBO-defining shows free range to do whatever the hell they wanted. David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, went off with writer-producer Eric Overmeyer to New Orleans and made Treme, which premiered way back in April 2010 on HBO, and has finally reached our shores via Sky Atlantic. David Chase, who created The Sopranos, is currently developing a miniseries for HBO about the birth of cinema called The Ribbon Of Dreams; meanwhile, the core writers and producers of The Sopranos have spread out to form a quality drama platoon, Matthew Weiner defecting to Showtime to produce the magnificent Mad Men, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess creating the contemporary NYPD family procedural Blue Bloods for CBS, and Terence Winter sticking around to create Boardwalk Empire.

So, three of the four major post-Sopranos shows are period pieces. Interesting. The Wire‘s David Simon, meanwhile, a man of the streets, is too interested in the drama around him to go backwards, which is why Treme, though set three months after Katrina in 2005, is all about now. Treme and Boardwalk are defining shows for Sky Atlantic, now airing on Friday and Saturday night, respectively. We’re a number of episodes in, so worth assessing where we’re at.

Treme is, in many ways, nothing like The Wire. But it gets under the skin of New Orleans just like Simon’s previous show did with Baltimore. Treme, or TremĂ©, is a district not totally decimated by the hurricane, but predominantly black, and serves as a capsule for the themes that run through the city like wire. The main theme, though, is music. I’ve never visited New Orleans but I know loads of people who have – or certainly did, before Katrina – and they all say the same thing: wherever you go, there is music. Although Simon is a writer fixated on people, and against institutions (we saw them all ticked off in The Wire), he and Overmeyer have allowed music to be the heart and soul of the piece. It opens with music, it ends with music, and what’s been most thrilling about the first two episodes, is that it stops to let us listen to music. Real musicians from the district play themselves – and play, themselves – and if a sense of reality is something you require from your fiction, Treme delivers.

Fictional threads arise from the constant soundtrack (which is to say, an actual soundtrack that emanates from the story, rather than a soundtrack that is layered on afterwards), but these seem to operate at the same pace as the jazz and blues. The fine cast plays as a band, but individual actors get solos: Clarke Peters – sage-like cool customer Lester Freamon in The Wire – as a father and Mardi Gras Indian rebuilding his life in the water-damaged city; Wendell Pierce – Bunk in The Wire, although a New Orleans-based musician before that, who appeared “as himself”, a wise talking head, in Spike Lee’s epochal When The Levees Broke – as the definitive no-good wandering minstrel; Khandi Alexander – junkie Fran in Simon’s The Corner – as a bar owner in search of her brother; Steve Zahn as a white Trustafarian DJ whose love of indigenous culture seems entirely sincere (he’s seen encouraging live voodoo chicken sacrifice on the air!); John Goodman and Melissa Leo as the middle class white liberals, a teacher and a civil rights lawyer … all human life is here, going about its business, not always providing high-wire, or high-Wire, thrills, but that’s not in the nature of the beast. Profound truths about family and roots and social engineering are still told.

Some have been critical of Treme‘s pacing and lack of incident. But not all drama can be packed with events. I thought drama arose from the decisions of characters when faced with events, not from the events themselves. If so, Treme is pure drama. The event happened three months ago; these people are acting accordingly. The music interludes even give you time to think. Two episodes in, and I’m in.

Boardwalk is much more traditional and less jazzy, even though it is set in the jazz age. That Martin Scorsese is an executive producer, and directed the pilot, is apt, as each episode feels like a little movie. Not that little, actually. Again, not all critical reaction has been positive. Many find it beautifully assembled, but derivative, and calculated. It is, but who can resist returning to it, to find out what happens next?

Apparently Steve Buscemi – not a leading man by birth, but hey, guess what, one with Sopranos form (they look after their own in this universe) – is not that much like the Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Johnson his Nucky Thompson is based on, but nor, you have to assume, is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Henry VIII an exact copy of the real king in The Tudors. It’s not important. As long as the stories are good. And the unfolding  twin-engine plotline of Prohibition-led, politically-exploited gangsterism and the seeds of romance in among the stony ground of sexual cruelty and opportunism (itself shaded by the suffragette and temperance movements) is enough to be going along with. Buscemi’s let’s-say unconventional allure to all women is partly explained away by power, but it’s more of a stretch to understand why Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret would have any time for him, despite an early kindness afforded her. That’s a bigger leap of faith for the viewer than the obviously computer-generated seafront. (Actually, echoing the food-poisoning “dream” episodes of The Sopranos, it does give the show an aesthetically pleasing unreality, a bit like the compound in Big Love.)

We’re six episodes into Boardwalk, so I have a more confident handle on it than I do as yet with Treme – my appreciation of which is at gut level – but I can feel the tensions rising. It’s totally HBO, in that its violence is unflinching (the vandalism of Jimmy’s girl with ambitions to become a starlet a particularly nasty moment), and its sex is raw and full-frontal, albeit usually between an ugly, immobile grunting man and a beautiful, shapely, composed woman – do the men who make these films feel more comfortable with the soft-porn exploitation of actresses’ bodies if the men are always presented in less than pretty form? That said, the interrelationships and intrigues and historical and social context would sit easily after 9pm on a terrestrial channel. I wonder if HBO programmes use the word “cunt” and flash their reproductive organs because they can?

This has not been an advertisement for Sky Atlantic. DVD box sets and illegal downloading are or will be available. (Treme is out in the UK in April; Boardwalk not yet listed.)