New life in the Big Easy, old values in the Big Apple

You can only receive Sky Atlantic, the channel that offers almost exclusively American shows, if your cable supplier is Sky. It’s unique: all the other Sky channels are available also on Virgin. The two pay-TV channels are quarrelling over the price (undisclosed) that Sky wants Virgin to pay for the channel. Both channels’ top executives say it won’t be available “any time soon”. Meanwhile, it functions as a marketing tactic for Sky, based on the belief that the shows will be so prized that they will spur the customer to undergo the hassle that a change of supplier entails. Will they?

I watched the first few episodes of its main attraction, Boardwalk Empire (Saturdays, reviewed earlier this month), and liked its swagger and stylishness a lot. The opening episode, directed by Martin Scorsese, carries over something of his trademark: like the novelist Honoré de Balzac, he wants to show you how wicked his villains are, but he wants you to know how infused with life and daring they are, too.

The other two shows that Sky is promoting hard are Treme (Fridays) and Blue Bloods (Saturdays). Treme, set in New Orleans, is created and written by David Simon, to whom some – me too – ascribe greatness because of his creation of The Wire. I think Treme might be as good. Insofar as there is a plot, it’s about a bunch of characters – including a trombone player, Antoine Batiste (played by Wendell Pierce, Bunk in The Wire); Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, another Wire alumnus), a chief in one of the “Indian tribes” that black New Orleans citizens created in homage to native Americans; and LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), a café owner – who are trying, a few months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to reconstruct new lives in the scratched grooves of the old. The Tremé district is a character in its own right: the DJ and musician Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) berates his neighbours for their lack of understanding that the noise they bemoan is the sound of “the most important black music district in America”: indeed, many famed musicians, including the trumpeter Kermit Ruffins – who appears as himself – grew up there.

It does flatter: the reasons, I guess, why New Orleans citizens like it so much. It’s full of creative characters seeking comradeship within their own groups but united in their contempt for the outsiders who come in to gaze at the wreckage – a bus tour gawks at one of Lambreaux’s ceremonies and is tersely told to move on. The New Orleans people, especially the blacks, are cool: the outsiders, represented in one case by a naïve little Christian trio who want street musicians to play “When the Saints” because it’s “authentic”, are little more than idiots. But the acting and dialogue have the same energy as The Wire.

Where Treme has something to show us about some Americans, Blue Bloods has something to tell us about the US. At its centre is an Irish-American family of lawmen and women: the grandfather is a retired cop, the father is the city (of New York) police chief, two of the sons are officers; a daughter is a lawyer. The chief (Tom Selleck) is a man of humanity, warmth, wit, courage and patriotism worn lightly, and devotion to duty emphasised heavily. He is a paterfamilias, but also a father of the state, the kindly but tough figure to whom we can consign care of our streets and civil rights, knowing he will patrol the first and have a care for the second. Where Treme shows police behaving brutally, Blue Bloods shows policing as a caring family business. The shows are a culture (war) apart.

Yet compare them with two British dramas that started this week and you find them less divided. South Riding (BBC1 Sundays), set in the 1930s, takes the core of Winifred Holtby’s novel to show us Sarah Burton (played by Anna Maxwell Davies) who has come back to her birthplace to be head of a girls’ school. The show is unafraid of clichés: Sarah, a progressive and feminist, is opposed by a handsome but conservative farmer-widower with a highly strung daughter who is in her school; Sarah quickly persuades the girl to adore her. I would be amazed if the same thing didn’t happen to the father.

Silk (BBC1 Tuesdays) has Maxine Peake playing a barrister striving to become a Queen’s Counsel but with principles, proclaiming the mantra “innocent till proven guilty” to her cynical colleagues, who all (except the bad ’uns) adore her.

The two British dramas have a social-polemical purpose: to show women, both youngish, setting a moral, or societally responsible, example to those around them, especially the men. Silk, in particular, is a portrait of a (so far) unequivocally Good Woman. They are, of course, set in Britain – picturesquely so, in the case of South Riding – but it’s just a setting. The American shows both want to say something about America: about the talent and self-reliance it nurtures in its toughest times and places; about its need for a restatement of the basic morality of how you live your life. Our (British) deepest and most popular foreign relationship is still with the US (no matter that it is not, often, reciprocal). Sky Atlantic will not generally have shows of the quality of Boardwalk Empire and Treme (both HBO), but even its clunkers yield insights, into ourselves as much as our Atlantic cousins.

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