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Dead Tree Alert: Treme; Plus, Full Treme Review

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Clarke Peters in Treme. / HBO

This week’s print edition of TIME has my feature on HBO’s Treme, debuting this Sunday, for which I visited a shoot in New Orleans (or, technically, Gretna) early last month. As usual, but more than usual, I overreported and underwrote. In the space I had allotted, I left out a lot of research on the city, nuance of the show, and great chunks of a long interview with David Simon. If I have time, I’ll at least try to post some excerpts from that later.

I also, as is often the case when I do a print feature, had to condense my assessment of the show into a brief section. (What we in the biz call “the review-y part.” Or at least I do.) So what do I think of Treme?

I wouldn’t yet call it great. (I’ve seen three episodes; keep in mind The Wire didn’t really come together, at least for me, until five or six episodes in.) But at moments it’s breathtaking. And it is always daring, fascinating, in love with detail and not quite like any fiction series I’ve ever seen made for TV, HBO included.

First, to state the obvious: Treme is not The Wire, despite sharing a creator and a troubled American city as its subject. (For the difference in their themes, see my feature.) If you’re watching because you really miss The Wire and want to see David Simon and company make more of it, you will be very disappointed.

So what is Treme like? It’s sprawling, for one thing, following the stories of an ensemble of more than a dozen New Orleaneans—a jazz musician, street buskers, a contractor / Mardi Gras Indian chief, a lawyer, a professor, a bar owner, a chef and on and on. But I was hard pressed to describe what Treme’s loose, sometimes leisurely narrative style was like until, when I interviewed David Simon, he mentioned that, as part of pitching the show, he would send TV executives a copy of the 1978 Les Blank documentary Always for Pleasure. See the opening of it here:

That’s when it hit me: the best way to describe Treme is as a fictionalized documentary. Not a mockumentary, or a faux-reality show, but a clearly fictional drama made in the impressionistic style of a long-form documentary. Some of its characters’ stories intersect and some not at all. Some of the stakes are huge and some are small.

But what really makes Treme special in its first few episodes are its recreations of New Orleans moments, especially musical ones. Not just the ones involving its numerous local guest musicians—from famous figures like Dr. John to more obscure ones like Cajun-Choctaw folk-blues guitarist Coco Robicheaux—which are shot with a you-are-there realism. When Kermit Ruffins blows his horn in a bar and you’re watching from the floor, the scene feels so alive and hot and jostling that you half-expect someone to spill his beer on you. These aren’t art-directed videos, they’re music as part of life. And even more striking are the music scenes that involve, and are integral to the lives of, the central characters.

The first is the very first scene of the series, a several minutes-long recreation of the first “second line” parade since Katrina through the Treme neighborhood. (The title notwithstanding, the series is actually set in neighborhoods all around New Orleans, from Central City to Tulane to the Lower Ninth to the French Quarter.) As a confederation of musicians—including the actual Rebirth Brass Band—snakes through the neighborhood, it draws in two of the major characters: Davis (Steve Zahn), a DJ/hipster who thinks he’s more of a charming rogue than he is, and Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) a trombone player forced by the flood to relocate near the airport. (When we meet him, he’s trying to talk a cabfare down, a running joke in the pilot.)

And it brings out the entire neighborhood, a swirling river of people that the camera follows with fascination. People dance on cars and brandish the traditional ceremonial parasols; kids show off in the street; a guy spins a flourish in a wheelchair. It all takes place in a riot of color on a street lined with rundown houses (not a function of the flood—Treme actually got relatively little water, and the show takes pains to remind us that New Orleans’ problems didn’t start with some weak levees).

As the crowd makes its way to a bar owned by Batiste’s ex, LaDonna, someone in the crowd waves a street sign: “Pleasure,” the name of an actual street in the city. I don’t know if it’s meant to be a nod to Always for Pleasure, but it’s just about right: what Treme is about, beyond any particular story, is the coexistence of hardship and delight.

Now the particular stories are a mixed bag so far. The most absorbing belongs to Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, The Wire’s Lester Freamon), the chief of a Mardi Gras Indian krewe, who has just come back to town, in December 2005, to repair his house and try to get his krewe back together in time for next Mardi Gras—though his neighbors doubt there will even be a Carnival. He finds himself living out of an abandoned bar with no water, and looking out for looters trying to strip his house.

His daughter, and his son—a jazz player from New York—try to talk him into leaving, but his quest is both personal and larger: it is about not giving up, and persuading his neighbors that they have an obligation to hang together. It is also about maintaining tradition—that living link to the past, as expressed in culture, being what keeps most of Treme’s characters going—and doing things right, even when it’s not easy. This comes up too when he takes a job restoring flood damage for a homeowner who wants to throw sheetrock over the damaged original plaster. “Ain’t that what people do?” the owner asks. “Tack sheetrock over perfectly good plaster?” Lambreaux answers. “Sure. People do a lot of dumb shit cause it’s easier.”

That is pretty close to a mission statement for Treme. (Actually, it would not have sounded out of place coming from Lester Freamon’s mouth.)  Yeah: it would be easier to give up on New Orleans. And it would—as the show’s giddy re-creation of its ineffable cultural moments argue—be dumb. Treme is weaker, though, when its characters voice those arguments literally. Professor Creighton Barnett (John Goodman), a Tulane English professor, gets off more than one rant making the point that what flooded New Orleans was not the hurricane (whose strongest winds missed the city) but the failure of levees meant to withstand it.

Goodman is great at this kind of blustery character (see The Big Lebowski), but it can feel at times like Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer have put their words in his mouth. (They haven’t; they have put the words of some real-life, impassioned New Orleans activists, including Ashley Morris.) But more powerful than Barnett’s flying-off-the-handle scenes is one in which he and his wife (Melissa Leo) visit a restaurant re-opened by Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens). She’s run out of every dessert except lemon ice, which she offers. “Can’t,” he says. “Would be disloyal”—to his regular lemon-ice place, not yet reopened. Janette runs back to the kitchen, pulls a Hubig’s fried pie out of her purse, and tells her sous-chef to plate it, drizzle something on it and send it out. It’s exactly what he needs—it’s home.

Unfortunately, though Dickens is a great actress, Janette’s story is disconnected from most of the others and can feel disposable. (Especially since her challenge—reopening a business—so parallels LaDonna fixing up her bar, Lambreaux fixing his house, and so on.) Likewise anything involving a pair of street buskers, who sometimes feel like part of another show, or Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a more-culturally-authentic-than-thou, broke DJ (by way of a well-off family) who seems meant to be funny and rascally, but comes off more a full-of-himself jackass—though I can’t rule out our being meant to see him that way. (I say that with some trepidation, having met on set Davis Rogan, a local musician turned writer on the show, on whom Davis is based, and who was welcoming, accessible and not jackass-y in the slightest. But life, meet fiction, &c.)

As a whole, Treme is a kind of intimate, loose, indie-film version of TV, its various stories almost an anthology connected by musical moments. (This is probably the result of Simon’s wide creative berth with HBO; not many TV producers would dare to, or be allowed to, make a show so devoted to realism over dramatic neatness.) But it is those moments—Simon is fond of the quote that “New Orleans is a factory that makes moments”—that make Treme worth sticking with, that make it, in certain scenes, transcendent and hypnotizing in a way few TV series are, even on pay cable.

The third episode ends with an especially staggering piece, as Lambreaux and some Mardi Gras Indian friends gather to pay tribute to a neighbor who died in the flood. Standing in a circle in the street, no costumes, just voices, hands, drums and tambourines, they sing an amazing, visceral version of “My Indian Red.” It’s like watching a religious ceremony, which in a way it is, the vocals recalling both Native American chant and African call and response. (By the way, Peters, an accomplished musical-theater actor, has an impressive, booming voice.)

Then they’re interrupted, by the arrival of a “Katrina tour” bus filled with tourists snapping pictures. Lambreaux tells them to clear out and the driver, realizing he crossed a line, apologizes: “People want to see what happened,” he says. I have no doubt there were actually such buses, but the scene—coming after a moment so poetic and show-not-tell—is a little on the nose. (It also raises a question: why are we watching, and why did HBO pick up the show, if not to “see what happened”?)*

The sequence captures Treme at its most breathtaking and its most frustrating. Maybe one aspect of the show will overtake the other, maybe they’ll coexist. But I found that by the third episode—while there were a few storylines I could live without—the show hung together in its larger theme: a faith in community, and a romantic dedication to the love of something beyond all practicality. Which is why I’ll keep watching Treme: it’s imperfect, but if it fails, it won’t be for lack of creative daring, or of passion, or of pleasure.

* UPDATE: By the way, I e-mailed Simon a while ago for his thoughts on this scene, and a similar encounter between a character and outsiders in episode 2 (in that case a student group volunteering to rebuild homes in the Lower Ninth Ward). He had some lengthy and very good thoughts on the subject, and I’ll do a post on them here later, probably closer to when those episodes air.

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