Now isn’t the time to say much about “Treme.” If HBO decides to move forward with David Simon’s new drama series, it won’t be ready for the public until 2010.
But being that Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer spoke about “Treme” at a recent literary conference in New Orleans, and being that they threw my name in the mix (read this news report), I feel entitled to share a thought or two about the art of writing for television.
Eric had me saying that “Treme” is about “the triumph of the human spirit,” which sounds like such horseshit. I actually didn’t phrase it that way.
I said the show is about the human impulse to rise after being knocked down. Which I don’t characterize as “triumphant” (or any more “triumphant” than a cat trapping a mouse or a monkey climbing a tree). It simply describes what is.
Bigger question: Does it matter if a TV series has a theme?
Many successful dramas don’t have an overarching theme. “ER” didn’t have a theme. (Or, if it did, nobody told me what it was.) I don’t believe “Homicide: Life on the Street” had a theme.
But “NYPD Blue” definitely did. In that show, David Milch’s theme was how we, the public, want the police to break the rules in order to keep us safe... even as we harshly punish those cops who get caught breaking the rules. Call it the dilemma of modern urban policing.
Milch put his heroic detectives – Sipowicz especially – right on that tightrope. And he got America to root for a cop who smacks suspects around. (A cop with racist impulses to boot.)
That was an amazing feat for network television.
Theme operates at a submerged level in storytelling. You don’t need to be aware of David Milch’s thematic intent to be entertained or moved by an episode of “NYPD Blue.” But it’s in there. And the experience of the story, I believe, is richer for that.
Milch also had a theme in “Deadwood”: the evolution of law, or how human society moves from chaos to order. (He originally wanted to explore this theme in a show about ancient Rome, but HBO already had “Rome” in development, so he did it as a Western.)
David Simon had a theme in “The Wire”: the inevitable defeat of the individual by the institutions which he serves. Again, you didn’t have to perceive this theme in order to enjoy the crime stories. But I’m sure the theme grounded Simon throughout his story-making process.
Even “Kingpin” had a theme. That show was nowhere near as serious-minded as “The Wire” or “Deadwood.” But it was important for me to have a handle on what the story was about... at the deeper levels.
It was about the dual nature of man. Which sounds like such horseshit. But nothing is more interesting about human beings than our capacity, at any given moral crossroads, to do wrong or right. It’s always a coin flip.
My drug kingpin, Miguel Cadena, was a man who decided to do evil... without accepting the definition of himself as evil. His soul was ruined and he didn’t even know it. If Miguel ever reconciled his deeds with his ideation of self, he probably would’ve commited suicide.
Nothing profound about that. Just explaining my mental process in telling a story.
I found my own personal handle on the theme of “Treme” during a location scout of a still-wrecked neighborhood in New Orleans... a location suitable for a second-line parade scripted by Simon and Eric. The juxtaposition of a joyful brass band and that devastated landscape... that was it, that’s the thing. This show is about the human impulse to do that.
Further, it’s about the impulse to get together in groups and do that. Even if the nuclear bombs drop, there will still be in us a need to gather... to find comfort and meaning in collective traditions that supersede the individual.
That plus fucking. Plenty o’ fucking. Hey, it’s HBO.