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Treme Watch: Farewell to Flesh

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Quick spoilers for last night’s Treme follow:

Mardi Gras, the event that Treme built toward—much as the New Orleans calendar builds toward it—came to the series last night. “All on a Mardi Gras Day” began with a kind of montage, showing various characters eating king cake and prepping for the holiday. And then the entire episode continued as a kind of montage—not so much advancing the ongoing stories (with a couple of exceptions) so much as using the red-letter day to suspend events and capture each character’s state of mind.

It’s in keeping with Treme’s exacting commitment to realism, I suppose, that it didn’t use Mardi Gras as some kind of artificial climax, in which events came to a head explosively, because life doesn’t work that way. The holiday was, instead, a beautifully rendered stasis, and each character’s experience of it was defined by their mindset and circumstances heading in. Albert—sadly, given that he was the one character most committed to Mardi Gras 2006 going on—stayed in jail. LaDonna held off telling her mother about her brother’s death for one more day. Creighton wallowed in gloom for the city and pity for himself. Janette took a day to forget her business troubles—or, more literally, half a day, as she spent the first half taking her cooking to the streets.

The big plot developments, so to speak, were characters hooking up, as befits an all-day party. LaDonna, overwhelmed with grief and tension, turned back to Antoine; Sonny stepped out on Annie; Annie, in turn, had a sweetly romantic moment with Davis, who benefited from her having the one boyfriend in New Orleans who could make him look good in comparison.

It almost goes without saying at this point that Treme rendered Mardi Gras gorgeously and in character, which is to say, it didn’t fetishize it or dress it up, but presented the music, parading and partying from a bustling, street-level point of view. My problem, which has been ongoing for the past few episodes, is that the amazing rendition of the life of New Orleans doesn’t have enough narrative thrust behind it. The previous episode (which I didn’t blog because it was the same night as the Lost finale and I didn’t see it in advance), was powerful, largely because of LaDonna’s story, which is one instance of a Treme character having a compelling, life-and-death goal. The previous episode, though, was stagnant.

This one was more engaging largely, as I said, because Mardi Gras offered a compelling reason for the pause. And it had, as usual, fantastic moments, such as the line of Mardi Gras Indians crossing the street in the pitch-dark. That scene recalled for me the New York Times photo of Mardi Gras Indians in a flood-damaged neighborhood in 2006, which co-creator Eric Overmyer (who helped write this episode) told me was a touchstone for the series. His and David Simon’s goal has been to try to recreate those evanescent, magic moments.

They have. But with Albert—another character with an involving goal (unlike Davis’ City Council race, say)—largely sidelined, the episode didn’t have the larger plot interest I wish Treme had. Arguably, the story that advanced most this week was Sonny and Annie’s, but the problem is I don’t much care about them, because their self-destructive-junkie and long-suffering-girlfriend story is probably Treme’s weakest and least original. (That said, I did enjoy, for instance, Toni finally hauling off and telling Creighton to man up and pull himself together—which worked precisely because, having worked LaDonna’s case, we had just seen her dealing with someone who has a real problem.) This Mardi Gras episode largely put the stories on pause, until—as we saw with LaDonna at the end of the episode—they had to face the real world again the morning after, on Ash Wednesday.

Treme has already gotten a second season, and I’m glad about that, because the show is in many ways fantastically well-made. But I hope it uses its break to apply its storytelling skills to some stories that are more engrossing to follow. (And no, those don’t have to be crime stories—just look at Friday Night Lights for an example of how to tell realistic regional American stories without becoming a cop show… well, with the exception of the season 2 Landry misstep.)

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