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Treme Watch: If This FEMA Trailer's A-Rockin…

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Spoilers for last night’s episode of Treme coming up after the jump:

“Right Place, Wrong Time” ends the run of three Treme episodes I’d seen before my original writeup and review, so my assessment back then is still pretty much the same: I think the series needs longer to coalesce as a whole—partly because there are so many stories to develop—but while we get there, it provides some simply staggering moments. (One of them in this episode being the closing scene of Albert’s “My Indian Red” tribute to his fallen friend; for David Simon’s explication of the ending moments with the “Katrina Tour” bus, see my post from last week.)

One thing I’d add is that—with the second episode and this one—Treme feels tighter, structured more like a TV series, than in the loose, meandering, indie-film-like pilot. With that, we start to see the emergence of some common themes among some of the plots. One of those, in “Right Place, Wrong Time,” is the relations and friction between New Orleans and the larger world, forced upon it after Katrina. Treme is showing us a very specific, idiosyncratic, almost foreign-seeming culture within America, but one whose tragedy has thrown into contact, and conflict, with alien forces. (Making the episode’s title—from the song playing as Sonny buys a bottle of beaujolais—especially apt.)

Sometimes these outsiders are benevolent, like the student volunteers last week. Sometimes they’re clueless, like the Katrina tourists. Sometimes they’re an impassive outside force, like the draw of Baton Rouge and Memphis and Houston and the other cities that have siphoned off the city’ residents. And sometimes they’re tense or even hostile, like the National Guard “army of occupation” that Davis runs in with, or the cops—not outsiders, obviously, but an edgy presence on the streets—who beat down Batiste after he bumps into their squad car.

Treme doesn’t set the authorities out to be uncomplicated bad guys. For instance, it punctures Davis’ paranoid idea that he was being oppressed by racial-profiling police—since, as his lawyer notes, they busted him and let his black friend go. But because the scope of Treme is deliberately less sprawling and omniscient than The Wire, its view of a law-enforcement run-in like Batiste’s can seem more one-sided.

In The Wire—and I know, comparisons are odious—we saw the police and the arrestee’s side of arrests. There were times when the cops were brutal, and unjustifiedly so. But because we’d spent so much time with the police, we would at least see scenes—”You do not get to win, shitbird! We do!”—where we would get some sense of the frustrations, fear or pressures that caused the police to act out. The Wire would not make brutality excusable, but it would make it explicable. It may be too much to ask of a show like Treme that’s a huge enough ensemble to begin with, but if law-enforcement issues become a bigger part of the show, it would be interesting to see another perspective.

Speaking of insiders, outsiders and conflicts, we got to see another scene with Davis that put his more-authentic-than-thou pose into perspective: he has a run-in with his gay neighbor, whom he accuses of being a gentrifier but who turns out to be a native New Orleanian who’s equally aware of his neighborhood’s musical importance. From the unsolicited comments of friends and readers, I get that Davis rubs a lot of viewers the wrong way, and I can’t argue, but this was an intriguing use of his character, to ask the question: what makes a rich white boy any more authentic in Treme than a gay white man?

Treme, after all, is a series created by two non-native New Orleanians (for a largely non-New Orleans viewership) and it thus seems unsurprisingly fixated on questions of authenticity; it seems deeply to want to find a way to live in New Orleans and not come to it as a tourist. The idea of complicating its vision, showing that there are many ways of being “authentic” in New Orleans—just as Dr. John’s and Albert’s “Indian Red” can be very different yet equally legitimate—is rich material for this show.

Now for a hail of bullets:

* So it turns out that Antoine’s lady did have a reason to suspect him getting more than paid while he’s out on those gigs.

* Having said that I liked the run-in between Davis and his gay neighbor, his stripper-neighbor subplot and song I could have done without entirely; it was another case where I felt like the show expected me to find the character as funny and charming as he does himself.

* And having said that: I have no idea where Davis’ storyline with the Barnetts is going—if anywhere—but that confrontation between John Goodman and Steve Zahn was beautifully played on both sides, both Davis’ nervousness and Creighton’s fist-in-glove hostility. (“Don’t worry about what she will or won’t do in the future. That has nothing to do with you.”)

* After Albert’s savage beatdown of his robber last week, it was interesting to see how sheepish he was about its aftermath, learning that the boy was in the hospital.

* The street-buskers storyline last week was one that felt very disconnected from the rest of the show, and I’m still not sure how well I think it works. But I’m at least more intrigued this week, as we get some hints that the bitter, brooding Sonny may have spent his extra money on more than beaujolais in the past (and may or may not be on the level ab0ut his heroic exploits during the flood)—and there seemed to be some foreshadowing in Annie’s anxiousness about being asked to play a gig without him.

* On the subject of the buskers, and musical moments, Batiste’s impromptu drunken crooning of “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance” was just beautiful. (Was I the only one who heard a touch of Tom Waits in Wendell Pierce’s raspy voice?) And of course his first worries after being sprung from lockup were a musician’s: his horn and his embrasure embouchure.

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