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Treme Watch: New Orleans Is Coming Home

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SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for last night’s Treme coming up, along with an off-the-menu plate of crawfish.

Before Treme debuted, David Simon and Eric Overmyer took pains to say that the show was not going to be The Wire: New Orleans. One way in which it would differ, they said, was its scope. Where The Wire was deliberately a sweeping vision taking in law enforcement, government, labor, education and the media, among other social institutions, The Wire would focus more tightly on individual lives. It wouldn’t have as all-encompassing a picture of, say, city hall, because its characters would have only so much reason to directly encounter government in their ordinary lives.

That’s been true in Treme to date. But the pronounced theme of the episode “Shame, Shame, Shame” was: Fighting City Hall. Or the parish. Or the White House itself.

There had already been an element of this with Toni, who as a lawyer has the most natural occasion to run into the government and its post-disaster frustrations. Ironically, her story this episode begins with a disctinctly un-Wire touch: a dream sequence, for LaDonna, in which she envisions her brother in a flooding prison. (Unless I’m forgetting, the highly naturalistic The Wire never used dream sequences, though Simon has said HBO once talked him out of giving McNulty one.)

Elsewhere, the characters’ run-ins with city hall are of a kind consistent with the show’s more intimate focus: a parade permit, a badly filled-in hole in the road, a place for people to live. Albert takes his consternation over the closed-down housing projects to the city government, with overtones, on a larger scale, of his decision to come back and salvage his house and regather his krewe. Albert’s house–and those of the neighbors around him–became a symbol of not giving up, of appreciating quality, upholding standards and not doing the easy thing. That fierce devotion crossed the line to violence when he beat down the looter he found in his house, and this week the passion behind his practical argument for re-opening the projects—they’re perfectly good and undamaged, and needed—threatens to boil over and undermine him when he confronts a pol face to face. (Excellent work by Clarke Peters, as usual, conveying Albert’s roiling rage.)

Creighton and Davis, meanwhile, found themselves directing their fury farther outward, as Creigh cut a YouTube video addressed with modulated anger at George W. Bush, and Davis cut his version of “Shame, Shame, Shame” addressed at the same. It’s a fine line when dealing with politically outspoken characters not to make them seem like mouthpieces, but it seemed fitting and natural here; Creighton and Davis are the kinds of guys who would react this way, and who would be surrounded by like-minded people.

[Update: Or as David Simon put it to me when I interviewed him back in March—an interview in which he used Creighton's line about the Dutch keeping "half their country out of the North Sea" without my knowing it was a quote from the show: "There's a place for that kind of anger in the show, but it has to come from the right characters. If you're a civil-rights lawyer, that's your world. If you're Antoine Batiste, you're upset that you can't get gigs and you're living out by the fucking airport."]

Davis’ actual single, on the other hand, probably divided viewers on the basis of ho wwell they can stomach his character to begin with. I tweeted a while back that Davis McAlary is the Jar Jar Binks of Treme; by that I meant that I can’t count how many people, who liked Treme in general, kept telling me unsolicited that they couldn’t stand him.

This episode, though, underscores for me that whatever problem I or anyone else has with Davis, it’s not the fault of Steve Zahn’s performance. And his crucial scene in the bar after the ReNew Orleans second line, in which Davis gets punched out for saying “nigger” in a bar full of black people (albeit while quoting Antoine), was a fine example. Davis gets by on bluster and cocksureness, as was evidenced by the showpiece scene of his fast-talking a slew of musicians into playing for him for next to nothing. But the second the bar patron calls him out, you can see he knows he crossed a line; asked to repeat what he said, he skips past the “nigger” line, then tries to cover himself by saying that he lives in Treme, so it’s OK—a very revealing line for him and also, it turns out, exactly the wrong thing to say. As he hustles out of the bar, it’s hard to guess which hurts him worse: his jaw, or having gotten his self-issued ghetto pass revoked. And in a pointed reversal, the people who come to his aid are the gay couple he looked down on as “gentrifiers” from the beginning of the series.

But as we see from the (real-life-based) shooting at the second line, there are already other things for New Orleans to worry about. As a police officer (St. Elsewhere’s David Morse) tells Toni, crime is coming back to New Orleans as well, along with everything else, and his department is not ready for it. “New Orleans is coming home,” as Sonny says before the second line, which means beautiful moments like Antoine’s girlfriend Davina tearfully reuniting with a friend whom she may have thought dead, and—for Sonny, for instance—the return of drugs to a dried-up town.

Five episodes in, what started as a rambling, atmospheric show is developing a definite thread and focus, while still widening its scope in this very strong episode. New Orleans is coming home. For better and for worse.

Now for this in this case ironically titled hail of bullets:

* One frustration I’ve had with Treme is that while I absolutely love Kim Dickens anywhere she appears, Janette has seemed to float disconnected from the rest of the series, her relationship with Davis notwithstanding. This was the first episode where I really felt invested in her story, and not just because she turned out to have a connection to David Brooks. It’s hard to make chef work dramatic, or as telegenic as music, but her Top Chef Masters experience of throwing together a meal to impress Tom Colicchio and his NYC posse made for a good scene, and Dickens played the hell out of it, showing us both her anxiety (in a flash of weariness as she showed them to their table) and the confidence coming back as she got behind the range, “lowballing” a New Orleans-specific menu and getting into her comfort zone. Treme has shown us her difficulties before, but it was important for her character to see her connection with her craft in action and with stakes, as we have with the musician characters.

* Incidentally, in that respect the appearance of the chefs worked perfectly well dramatically. But I’m hoping Treme doesn’t go overboard with the celeb cameos (on top of the musical guests, we’ve seen Roy Blount Jr. and last week Nelson George and Stanley Crouch, among others). I know that David Simon can get anyone on his show now, but I don’t want to see it become a highbrow Entourage of guest bits.

* One thing that confuses me about Creighton’s story arc is that his YouTube videos seem to have elevated him to a sudden position as populist spokesman for New Orleans (see, for instance, his surprise at Roy Blount Jr. complimenting him on his “Fuck you you fucking fucks” rant). But the pilot would seem to indicate that he was already a spokesman for his position—at least to the extent that he was apparently a go-to interview for NPR, British TV and evidently others. I can see the videos having raised his profile, but the pilot seemed to suggest he already had one, and a reputation for blowing his stack.

* Antoine’s jaunt across the city with his Japanese jazz-fan benefactor seemed mostly a digression here, but it also points toward future developments; I’m guessing he must have bought that second trombone for his mentor who lost his own on the first floor of his house in the flood.

* I’m curious to hear what Wire fans thought of the opening dream sequence. I don’t have a problem with it per se, in that I don’t think Treme is obligated to follow the same rules The Wire did. On the other hand, it is shot in a very similar style of realism (it’s just not as aesthetically different from The Wire as, say, True Blood is from Six Feet Under, though it’s tonally different), so if the show’s going to break form, I’d want the dream sequence to add more than I thought this one did.

* On the other hand, there was another notable, and entirely fitting, difference from The Wire here. In The Wire, when someone went off shooting people, you’d know who and why and what was behind it. Here, you experienced the shooting the way law-abiding civilians do: as something that just happened, leaving everyone else to puzzle over it—and wonder what’s going to happen next.

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