Much Delayed Thoughts on the Television Series Treme

15 Dec

 

Anyone attempting to watch the HBO show Treme without having visited New Orleans might mistake it for being too slow to enjoy. The pacing of the show is very similar in how things roll out in real life down in the “Big Easy”. Upon my first visit to New Orleans, it took a couple of days for my mind to downshift. Until that happened, I was irritated with how rapidly I became bored with every activity that my host suggested. Looking back on things, I can honestly say that I was a bad guest. Unfortunately for me it wasn’t until my final night in town that I synced up with the rest of the city.

I learned my lesson and did everything the right way during my second visit to New Orleans. I took my longboard with me to get around town, and I hit all my favorite restaurant spots (I’d put Parasol’s up against any other restaurant down there) and then some during Mardi Gras weekend. The visit was thorough enough that I decided that I never needed to go back, but it did make me want to watch David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s project about post-Katrina New Orleans.

Treme first premiered back in 2010, and ran for roughly 3 and a half seasons. The show’s name is based on a neighborhood in New Orleans; where a lot of the artists and musicians lived until the tragic flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2006. The story’s backdrop takes place post flood, approximately 3 months after the storm. Citizens who left before the storm hit are coming back to their homes, while those who stayed and survived, are picking up the pieces in their own ways.

Although The Wire has received a great deal of critical acclaim, and Simon’s most recent production,The Deuce is currently getting all the buzz, Treme in my opinion is the best written work of any of the David Simon projects. Though generally respected for his work on The Wire, in 2010, Simon still wasn’t the media darling that he is today. The Wire had reached a cult status, but a large segment of the television watching population had yet to brave the terrain that was laid out in that five season project. It was a little too rough around the edges for some people. I’d even heard people honestly admit that it was just “too real” for them. It is not a show for everyone, and Simon embraced his outside agitator status and continued to make projects that interested him.

The beauty in the show Treme‘s writing is that the writers aren’t concerned with pace or glandular titillation. The backbone of the show is the stories of the characters, and how they are connected (even divided) by the tragedies and turmoil that resulted from the storm. It is an extremely rich and ambitious pursuit. Each episode is rife with tender moments, anger inducing conversations, and moments of levity that have stuck with me since.

All the elements of a David Simon show are here in Treme. The use of music throughout the show is at times thoroughly subtle and precise (anyone remember that one bar scene from The Wire where the jukebox played Gram Parsons’ Streets of Baltimore?), but also inescapable. A song request at a Bar Mitzvah may tie in with the theme of that particular episode,  and may very well appear again in a different incantation at the very end of the show during a “Second Line” funeral march. Sometimes the show would brilliantly cut from a scene that was filmed inside the studio of a radio session, then bleed out from the speakers of a radio in the next scene. The transitions on these occasions are beautiful and seamless.

As I’ve said earlier, the characters are the most compelling part of the show. They have depth and warmth to them, and are written as well-rounded people. The twists and turns with the main characters are occasionally frustrating, often times surprising and sometimes even shocking. Unlike The Wire, where we only get small sliver of insight into the lives of each character, in Treme we are allowed to swim in their minds and breathe, eat, and sleep in the character’s psyches. Each scene lingers a beat or two longer for the viewer to reflect in real-time along with the people in the scene.

There is a good mix of fresh and familiar faces on this project–and plenty of cameos by real life artists (both from New Orleans and abroad) who you’ll recognize. Those of you Simon fans who go all the way back to his days as a writer on the 90’s NBC show, Homicide, will recognize Melissa Leo (who was adorable in her role as Detective Kay) as public defender and civil rights lawyer Toni Bernette. John Seda even shows up in later seasons as Nelson Hidalgo, a developer and venture capitalist who graduated from the University of Texas.

Wire alumni Clark Peters (Lester Freamon) and Wendell Pierce (Bunk Moreland) show up as central characters in the show, Peters as Big Chief Lambreaux, and Pierce as trombonist, Antoine Batiste. Both put on excellent performances of two complicated, but lovable men dealing with their new lives as best as they can.

Steve Zahn is one of the newcomers to the David Simon Mafia.  He plays DJ Davis, a spoiled trust fund hipster who grew up in New Orleans, but embraces the city’s historic jazz culture as much as a white man can without getting written out of his inheritance. Another one of the side stories is that of Sonny and Annie, a musician couple from New York and Amsterdam (another canal city built on indulging in one’s vices) who moved to New Orleans before the storm and decided to ride out the flood.

Simon and Overmyer do a great job of casting strong female leads in Khandi Alexander and the aforementioned Leo, who find a balance within their roles as women dealing with tragedy, through grace, anger, and sadness. It is impossible to not feel for their characters, but somehow you know they will push on despite their circumstances.

The show even has manages to soften the biting criticism of culture vultures and uptight New Yorkers, showing rather than telling the viewer why people from outside New Orleans often times just don’t get it.

Despite the lack of any major rising action, Treme is an extremely beautiful show that runs the gamut of human emotion. It is fun. It is boisterous and celebratory. It is funny. It will piss you off. It will make you dance and sing out loud. You will get frustrated by the city’s bureaucracy, and the by self-destructive impulses of some of its main characters. You may also find yourself shedding tears where you least expect to (there is one beautifully unforgettable scene in particular where a Japanese jazz enthusiast buys Pierce’s character a new trombone and Pierce tests it out for the guy in the middle of a public space by playing a song. For some reason the room got real dusty during that scene).

I love New Orleans for the same reason I love New York City, both are cultural landmarks where a black art form originated (New York birthed hip hop and of course jazz music started down in New Orelans’ Congo Square), but I didn’t realize how much I appreciated New Orleans until I watched this show a second time. David Simon gives us a poignant look into the racial and cultural politics that contributed to the misfortune that befell New Orleans; in addition to how those same politics were involved in the rebuilding (and re-branding) of the city. You won’t have to have visited New Orleans to get the show, but it certainly helps.

Almost 12 years removed from Hurricane Katrina, places like Houston, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are today facing the same questions and difficulties that inhabitants of the Gulf of Mexico faced back then. How does a place remain unique and lively when the people and elements that made it so are removed? What is the personal definition of home, and what does a person do when that home no longer exists?

In a way, it feels very appropriate to revisit this television series. It sort of slid under the radar, but it is no less important than anything else that has come out since 2010. The writing in Treme proves that often times the best part of a well written story is not the chaos itself, but the things that result from it. 

 

BM

profile pic b mick  Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found recording podcasts with Craig Stein at Fullsass Studios. Follow him on twitter @goodassgame. For booking inquiries, send contact info to thisagoodassgame@gmail.com. 

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