Two years ago, I watched the first fifteen minutes of David Simon’s New Orleans post-Katrina HBO drama Treme, and turned it off, irritated and confused. Who were all these people? What was going on? And why should I care?Well, here are some reasons – and just in time, since the show began its third season Sunday night.
I saddens me to think that a lot of other people might have had the same initial reaction I did, but it may explain the fact that the show has never been a big hit for the cable network. I was lucky, though: Annie watched it while I was out one night and sat me down a few days later to give it a chance. I admire David Simon’s signature opus The Wire. I see why it keeps winning Best-TV-Show- ever competitions, much to Simon’s dyspeptic amusement, since that drama was never a hit for HBO, either. The Wire was great, no question. I enjoy The Wire and I respect The Wire.
But I love Treme.
Let me count the ways. First of all, it’s a show about people – It’s not a cop show, though there are cops in the mix, most notably David Morse, finally playing something besides a cardboard villain. It’s not a lawyer show, though there is one wonderful lawyer played by the sublime Melissa Leo. It’s not a doctor show, (Though one of the characters is a dentist), or a teen show or a reality show or a game show. It’s just a story about actual people – the musicians, cooks, barkeepers, contractors, fishermen, developers, neighborhood activists, politicians who make up the ongoing life of a struggling.city.
The Treme is a a famous neighborhood in New Orleans, described this way on the City Dictionary website:
Named after Claude Treme, the Treme (pronounced truh-MAY) neighborhood (often referred to simply as 'Treme') is the first free neighborhood of color in America. Treme is the location of Congo Square, where African folkways and music were permitted to flourish long before slaves were able to freely congregate anywhere else in the country. Treme is also the site of Storeyville, and is as close to any one place in New Orleans as can be considered the actual birthplace of jazz. Claiborne Avenue, which forms the northern border of Treme, was once the wealthiest African-American commercial district in the US, until I-10 was constructed in 1966. Today, Treme is still home to beautiful creole architecture, vibrant restaurants (like Dooky Chase, Lil Dizzy's, and Willie Mae's Scotch House), and live oaks. Louis Armstrong National Jazz Park is located in Treme, as is the Mahalia Jackson Theater of Performing Arts.
I had no idea. It sounds like a fertile location: storeyville, indeed. Co-creator Eric Overmeyer lived in New Orleans and saw the potential for a densely composed narrative about intersecting lives, everyone fighting to rebuild the damaged city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Great literature weds personal stories to the larger world, and the lives of Treme’s people, lived against the backdrop of natural disaster, corporate greed and political corruption has all the scope and resonance of a novel by Balzac – or Tom Woolf. But ultimately it’s not the newsworthiness of the plotlines or the political acumen of the writers that draws us into the tale, but the characters – and the actors who play them.
First among equals would have to be Antoine Batiste, a big-spirited divorced and struggling trombone player; and Albert Lambreaux, a dour mardi gras Indian chief trying to restore his tribe, home and his neighborhood. They are played by Wendell Pierce and Clark Peters respectively, both of whom will be instantly familiar to fans of The Wire, where they portrayed police detectives Bunk Moreland and Lester Freamon. It’s the same old story … I liked and respected those hard working cops; but Antoine and the Chief are something else, something bigger and more complicated and more beautiful. They’re real. Antoine, short of cab fare to play a funeral procession, badgered by his new wife into teaching music at the public schools, still living large, putting bands together and firing them, playing his heart out at every opportunity, unwilling to give up the dream … and the Chief, stern and in flexible, as relentless with the intricate beading of his Mardi Gras headdress as he is with the electrical wiring in his ruined house, sad and bitter, and yet grinning like a ten year old with a train set when he hears the a song he recorded with his jazz musician son playing on the radio.
How did the song wind up on the airwaves? That would be the work of DJ Davis McAlary, played by the irrepressible Steve Zahn, a music besotted slacker always on the brink of getting fired from the station for his bizarre playlists, who it turns out is composing a funk and soul opera about the hurricane and its aftermath. His first girlfriend on the show, Janette Desautel, a cook played by Kim Dickens (who was so wonderful on two other great shows – Deadwood and Friday Night Lights) loses her restaurant to the flood in the first season and winds up working in New York City for a variety of real-life chefs, most notably David Chang, who has an effortless screen presence. It makes sense – big time restaurant cooking is a kind of performance art itself. Janette may be back this season – someone is offering her the chance to start a new restaurant in nNew Orleans. But Davis has a new girl friend, Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), a classical violin virtuoso who’s learning to play jazz on the streets of the city.
There are so many more. Khandi Alexander (The Corner) plays LaDonna Batiste Williams, Antoine’s tough, sassy ex-wife, who runs a bar in the district but spends time in Baton Rouge now her new husband, as she recovers from the after- effects of a brutal rape; and Melissa Leo as Toni Bernette, a civil rights lawyer indefatigably searching for the truth about a young man killed by the police during the flood, with the often unwilling help of detective Terry Colson (David Morse, in his best role since St. Elsewhere, more than thirty years ago). John Goodman played Toni’s outraged blogger husband in the first season. He’s off the show now, for reasons I won’t give away here, but his wife and daughter Sofia remain. India Ennenga plays the little girl, growing up fast, now falling in love with her first musician. Sofia interned for a crooked city councilman last year. He’s in jail this season, but Nelson Hidalgo, the Dallas-based contractor involved with the Councilman in various urban redevelopment real-estate schemes, schemes on, played by a pitch perfect, sleazy but somehow likable Jon Seda.
… and that’s just a start. The show teems with people, hustling and striving and playing music, and the music is everywhere. The Treme neighborhood seems like a blissful utopia of music, until violent crime shatters the dream. But the dream goes on: the dream of artistic fulfillment, of true love, of urban renewal and spiritual redemption. These people don’t quit. The gusto and joy of their crazy stamina is always inspiring.
One of the things I like best about this unique show is that you have to discover all this stuff for yourself. There are no information dumps, no awkward exposition in dialogue, no lengthy self-explanations. The charcacters just go about their lives – you can eavesdrop if you want. Of course that was what put me off at first – I had no idea that musicians were negotiating the price for participating in a funeral parade. I had no idea Antoine was one of them as he haggled with his cab driver. But the second time through I sat back and stopped asking questions. I remembered something ,my mother used to say when I would pester her about plot points on Bonanza or The Man fromU.N.C.L.E.
“Let it unfold.”
Turn on Treme this Sunday, listen to the music, watch the people, let it unfold.
You’ll be glad you did.