Look Closer: the visual style of The Wire and Treme

David Simon’s new HBO drama, Treme, now in its second series in the US, depicts a disparate group of people living in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s received a mixed critical reception, with many critics comparing it unfavourably to The Wire, the exploration of urban dysfunction that is Simon’s undoubted masterpiece. While at first glance, comparing Treme and The Wire seems counterproductive, I’m going to take a look at the style of both shows, and how that style points up their significant differences.

(A brief note: this piece has been inspired both by discussion on Twitter and the latest TV On The Internet podcast. Discussion of Treme begins at 1 hour 10 minutes in.)

The Wire moves at an extremely deliberate pace. Aside from the odd visual flourish in the pilot, like incorporating surveillance footage into certain scenes, the series stays rooted in a polished, assured and unshowy realism. This is not the jittery, documentary-style verité camerawork of Homicide: Life On The Street, the other series about police work in Baltimore to be adapted from Simon’s writings.

The Wire will often employ filmic techniques rarely used on the small screen, such as shooting a conversation with both characters in the frame instead of alternating over-the-shoulder shots, or pulling in on one character while another talks. This is part of the overall confidence of the show and its creator, that it can ease us into an alien and often confusing world, without spoon feeding us, and we will learn to find our way through it.

Style and creator are here inseparable. Simon as a person is righteous, highly focused, with a fixation on clarity and a deep contempt for obfuscation. Read any interview with him – this recent one is a good example – and those qualities will be on display.

This focus and control comes through in the look of the show. Every shot and camera movement is precise and meticulous. The Wire, as well as Simon’s other series – The Corner (which preceded The Wire), Generation Kill, and now Treme – look and work like well-calibrated pieces of machinery where every part interlocks and works towards a single goal.

But does that work for all the series he’s made? That kind of low-key realism is an asset when making fictionalised accounts of true events (The Corner, Generation Kill), or a explicitly polemical show about the interconnected problems of an American city. I happen to think Treme is different to both of those categories. Yes, there are moments of polemic, but overall it’s a much more easygoing show. The story is one of attempts by the various characters to rebuild their city and their lives.

Treme moves at more or less the same pace as The Wire, but without the cops-versus-crooks angle to hook audience interests. But the intent is the same; to immerse the viewer into a new world and gradually explain how it operates. Where The Wire’s focus is sociological, Treme’s is cultural. I personally love the hanging-out aspect of the show; there’s a sense rarely present in other TV shows, that the world and the characters exist for themselves and not just for the audience. We’re just bystanders, lucky enough to have a seat and watch the world go by.

Which brings me to my actual point – the drawbacks of doing such a laid-back series with such a buttoned-up visual style. You find yourself wishing that the show would relax a little. The closest thing to Treme in terms of narrative DNA (apart from The Wire) would probably be Robert Altman’s sprawling ensemble pieces, and the show could benefit from a looser, Altman-esque take. (Given the value Simon places on precise phrasing, I doubt he’d be too open to improvisation, but I could be wrong.) Or perhaps a handheld, documentary-style approach in common with Homicide.

All this speculation aside, Simon made the series his way, and he made what is to me an absorbing and atmospheric examination of a city and a culture fighting against obliteration. It’s not The Wire, but then again, it was never intended to be.


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