This week the BFI screened the international premiere of Treme, the new HBO series from The Wire creator David Simon. Treme (it rhymes with “away”) is set in New Orleans, three months after the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to the series premiere several weeks ago in America, insightful reviews already abound on the internet, many of which unsurprisingly compare the show to The Wire. Given this, I thought I would approach the show, and the comparison, from an angle that has been left unexplored thus far, namely the representation of women.
It is too early to say just how broad a picture Treme aims to paint of New Orleans, but its pilot episode already sprawls far beyond the district from which it takes its title. Meanwhile The Wire was renowned for attempting to expose the inner workings of the entire city of Baltimore. It did so with unrivalled depth, subtlety and insight, yet if there was one criticism it consistently met, it was that it failed to properly represent the narratives of half of Baltimore’s population – its women.
At first sight, Treme does not appear susceptible to this charge. The pilot episode featured a roughly equal gender balance across its many story strands, and the female characters were well-written, and not consigned to stereotypical roles – Oscar nominee Melissa Leo as a civil rights attorney investigating the disappearance of a young prisoner being a standout example. Then again, it was never the quality of the female roles that drew criticism for The Wire. In its debut season for example, compassionate, violent, honour-bound lesbian cop Greggs was as complex and central as any character – but she was something of an exception.
Does this mean that David Simon has changed his approach to representing women? The short answer is no. What seems to have changed is his remit; his grand aspiration. So far as least, it seems that Treme aspires to capture the personality of a city, whereas The Wire was concerned with dissecting its institutions. Since these institutions are overwhelming male-dominated in real life, and the culture of machismo that this engenders has a great bearing on their internal power dynamics, it is understandable that Simon chose to reflect this reality. In fact with Treme he seems equally at pains to reflect the reality of gender distribution across the city – its numerous jazz performances were almost exclusively male affairs. However, in his attempt to encapsulate the defining spirit of New Orleans, he has necessarily called as many female as male voices into the throng.
This is not to say that there isn’t a third way. The pulse of an institution can be read according to the fortunes of the lives of its occupants, and even if they are predominantly men, most of these men’s lives are filled with and defined by women. The potential to elucidate the dynamics of a male-dominated world by focusing on the women in the lives of its men is realised by the award-winning AMC series Mad Men. Week after week, it recreates the sexism and misogyny endemic in its 1960s New York advertising agency with unflinching detail, and it is almost always its male characters who are the power brokers, at least in the most obvious sense. However, by giving these men’s wives, lovers, mothers and secretaries almost equal airtime, the show reveals that the true power dynamics at play are far more complicated – and not just in the most obvious ways. Furthermore, it creates interesting instances of women with power to wield – a wealthy young heiress, an ambitious and talented female copywriter – to complicate these dynamics yet further.
There were occasions during The Wire when I wondered if David Simon might have taken this approach to potent effect. It remains to be seen if he will do so with Treme – his portrayal of the New Orleans jazz scene, so far dominated by male musicians, will be a key area to watch. Where does jazz figure in the minds of New Orleans’ women? As yet, we only have Khandi Alexander’s character LaDonna commenting: “I married a goddamn musician – ain’t no way to make that shit right”. So far, so amusing, but I will be intrigued to discover where we go (or not) from here.