Tuned In

Checking in on Treme: Present at the Re-Creation

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General second-season spoilers for Treme below:

I haven’t been blogging about Treme much this second season, partly because I’m cutting back on weekly reviews at Tuned In, but partly because the show offers both too much and too little to talk about. On the one hand, the show still takes its time, and—with exceptions like LaDonna’s brutal rape—there is often not a lot of dramatic story movement to discuss. On the other hand, there is so much richness of detail, conversation and incident that to really unpack an episode in a post could take 3,000 words and more time than I have.

But cutting back on weekly Watches will hopefully free up some time to do some “checking in” posts on series that I’m watching but not regularly blogging about, like this one. If the first season of Treme was how a city of creativity, New Orleans, uses its art and culture to heal from the shock of a disaster, the second season has been about how that city and its expatriates use its creativity to rebuild—namely, by creating.

Treme has always been an unusual thing for TV: a show largely about artists, whom TV has had a hard time successfully dramatizing outside competition reality shows. And in dealing with the first year after Katrina, Treme was examining New Orleans’ art (food, music, street performance) in an atypical situation—not in growth-and-evolution mode but in survival-and-comfort mode.

In season two, though, the floodwaters have receded, characters have had time to take stock and settle—some of them, like Janette, outside the city—and the series is, among other things, focusing on their doing what comes naturally: moving on and trying to create.

In part, this is an outgrowth of a larger theme of the season, and the reality of the city as we rejoin it: it’s rebuilding. The physical rebuilding of the city is the reason for introducing outsider Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), who’s been a remarkable character to watch this season, On the one hand, we have instant reason to be suspicious of him: he’s an outsider from Texas in town to make a buck, he’s politically connected and his story gives us some intimations of the shady dealings that are going to come along with any massive effort to reconstruct a city. And the process by which that happens is going to raise questions of whether the bad is being thrown out with the good. (See, e.g., the library books at the Phillis Wheatley School, whose real-world situation I blogged about when I visited the Treme set last year.) Yet the city does need work and money, and Hidalgo genuinely seems to fall in love with it, not just as a business opportunity but as a place and a culture.

But the musicians and other creators in Treme’s cast of characters are rebuilding in their own ways too. Antoine’s efforts to build a funk band, and his blossoming as the frontman for it, create a sense that life can in some ways get better than before—even as he’s exposed to the trauma that the city is going through, for instance through his work in the schools. Annie’s work on her songwriting shows her moving on from her toxic relationship with Sonny while discovering the challenges of a seemingly simple craft. (Credit to the show, by the way, for dramatizing a process that has to be terribly hard to render on TV.) Even Davis, trying to launch his hip-hop career, is finding a way to express his enthusiasm and political rage in ways other than quixotic gestures.

[I’ll be honest, though: this season has only convinced me that I like Davis a lot less than Treme does. My problem with him is not that his character can be obnoxious, adolescent and holier-than-thou—that’s a legitimate choice for a character, and I actually think Steve Zahn has done fantastic work bringing him to life. But the first season balanced presenting him as a charming rogue with showing him as sometimes sanctimonious and entitled, i.e., when he discovered he did not have a ghetto pass to use the N-word. This season, with the hip-hop storyline, it seems hard to buy into his plot unless you basically accept him as a likeable, righteous, talented character, and I can’t see him as enderaing and disarming as the camera and the characters around him seemingly do.]

In New York, meanwhile, Janette and Delmond are both trying to pursue creative careers, in food and music, and figuring out how to express their New Orleans roots through their work. Delmond, who once ran from New Orleans both literally and artistically, is working toward integrating his urban modern jazz with the ancient down-home music he finds calling to him. And Janette’s peregrinations through the Manhattan restaurant world–written by No Reservations’ Anthony Bourdain–have become a fascinating show-within-a-show; I never expected the mechanics and dynamics of a kitchen to make effective TV drama. (As a non-native New Yorker, I also appreciate that we see that Janette is both anchored by her roots and electrified by working in the city; sometimes in Treme’s first season, Manhattan seemed to stand in for everything that was soulless, shallow and unable to “get” the magic of New Orleans.)

There had been talk that with the second season, as crime returned to New Orleans, there would be more naturally compelling drama to speed Treme’s plot along. LaDonna’s brutalizing is an obvious example, and David Morse has done excellent, restrained work putting a human face on the NOPD (as well as keeping Toni tied into the story after her first case and Creighton’s suicide). But if anything, the second season of Treme has been more about the little things and the internal struggles of adjustment and creation—and, surprisingly, its strongest drama has been driven by art, not by gunshots.

That hasn’t helped Treme’s ratings this season (though HBO has already picked up a third), and it’s clear that this is never going to be the kind of drama that delivers the kind of action that brings bigger audiences. Even as a fan myself, I don’t always feel compelled to catch it live. But when I catch up on it, I find it has a hypnotic, absorbing effect like little else on TV.

The most important thing Treme does is, like its characters, try to find a way to express the ineffable. I could probably never make a compelling case to a new viewer to watch the show by describing what literally happened last week.  What does happen, nonetheless, is a little bit of art and a little bit of magic.