Passion projects take all forms. New Orleans is one, for better and for worse, fully acknowledging and celebrating that it hangs from a state that is an afterthought to the city itself. The multi-national culture it hones inspires myriad artists in every medium, and the cuisine brings in hordes. It has become a way of life whose true essence is rarely captured properly in a fictional context. And then story-master David Simon came in, and he didn't even need the whole city. This is Treme, one of the oldest and most cultured neighborhoods in the city. There's no need to wipe your feet when you visit, just tap them to the beat.
No one mentions New Orleans anymore without Hurricane Katrina taking over the conversation. Defining tragedy in every sense, it was a disaster that garnered as much ire towards human elements as towards the natural ones. Washington D.C. almost gave the city the pink slip, and then what would David Simon have followed up Generation Kill with? Wasn't the government thinking about this whenever proper levee construction was avoided in the first place, and barely anybody came to help all the dying people? We like our comments spicy here in South Louisiana.
The series starts off three months after the majority of Katrina's devastation has passed, and the rebuilding process has begun. True to Simon's form, there are plenty of showcased characters whose personal trials and tribulations inform the larger story of the region as a whole. Take Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), the smooth-talking trombone player who lives from one gig to the next, barely supporting a wife and newborn, along with an ex-wife, Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), and the children they share. The remarried Ladonna has recently reopened her bar, Gigi's, and worries for her brother, Daymo, who is caught up in the disorganized prison system and hasn't touched base with the family since the storm. Helping Ladonna is Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), a civil rights lawyer with an interest on spotlighting the downfalls of the post-hurricane legal system. Toni's husband, Creighton (John Goodman), is an English professor whose goal of finishing a novel is overtaken by his anguished outlook on what he sees as a dying city. They share an unannoying daughter, Sofia (India Ennenga).
See how these characters flow from one to the next? One of the unique aspects of Treme is the intentional avoidance of stereotypical plotlines and a focus on capturing a neighborhood on the rebound. These personal stories have no place in a procedural drama, and there aren't necessarily any opposing forces to place your wages on, so it's not that kind of show either. These are slices of life from people who take their time more so than those in other big cities. There is resonance, rather than shallow echoes.
To further the character chain, Steve Zahn plays Davis McAlary, sometimes a DJ, sometimes a musician, and always a champion of the Treme. (He teaches Sofia piano. Connections!) Davis is currently sleeping with, and possibly dating, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a fine dining chef whose home and popular restaurant have suffered severely after the storm. If you thought this show still didn't have enough music-related aspects to it, you're in luck. We also bear witness to the staling relationship between second-year street musicians Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli). Too cool for either school or sobriety, the anti-conformist Sonny pales in comparison to Annie's skill with a fiddle and verve for progression.
The last of the major character stories, one that will undoubtedly leave unfamiliar viewers scratching their heads, involves Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a Mardi Gras Indian chief who allows no obstacle in his path to stop him from parading his tribe around come St. Joseph's Day. Lambreaux's tribe, like any other, creates amazingly vivid and elaborate costumes and headdresses from beads and feathers, spending the entire year doing so. Mardi Gras Indians are a controversial group, so the police are never far from Lambreaux, who does nothing to stop them from watching. His son, Delmond (Rob Brown), is a New York trumpet player, jaded by the lack of success that New Orleans musicians find within the city. Delmond is summoned by his sister to come home to try and talk sense into Albert.
I can't get enough of this show. It's worth stating right here, right now, that if you couldn't care less about brass bands, Cajun music, or authentic Southern people in general, then you're a dumb son of a bitch. Also, this show isn't for you. But for everyone else, it's a treasure trove. Dozens of local musicians pour in for genuine cameos and jam sessions. You won't see Kermit Ruffins on 30 Rock or The Simpsons. There's Dr. John, "Big Sam" Williams, Galactic, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Coco Robicheaux. John Boutté, who sings the awesome theme song, also makes an appearance. Every performance, from the second lining to the street piano, is all recorded live, allowed to play through, and it all sounds amazing. I realize that my inner fanboy is shining through. Also, there are famous chefs. Moving on.
It's not all music. It's not all partying. It's not all drinking and sexing and drugs. That's what the closing credits are for, nyuk nyuk. No, there are actual stories being told here that run the emotional gamut. Ladonna's family is in constant worry over Daymo's fate, while Ladonna herself has to deal with a shady roofer contracted to work on her bar. Toni is troubled by both work and the distance Creighton is putting between them. Though she thinks it's due to his work on the novel, Creighton is really posting YouTube videos that focus his rage over the government's ineffective efforts to save the city. The favorable attention he receives soon loses its glamour.
Albert and Delmond's relationship is strained, to say the least, as Delmond's former respect for his father has faltered. Albert's campaign for suiting up is hindered by time, money, and his own stubborn self. He gets into trouble with police over the extended abandonment of housing projects not fully damaged by the storm. David Morse comes in late in the season as a cop hoping to calm the waters between the Indians and the police. Meanwhile, Janette's restaurant troubles soon give her a portable occupation to tend to. Davis finds himself sort of running for public office after a protest song he records gets popular. Really, Davis is all about pot smoking and partying it up, so you're never going to feel bad for him, though he's an empathetic character to others. Zahn really doesn't do anything other than Zahn, but it fits here. Then there's Sonny, who doesn't know how to handle Annie's growing tendencies to play sets with entire bands. Antoine doesn't know how to keep his dick in his pants. And all of it leads up to Mardi Gras, but it doesn't end there.
Though there is much hope to be found in some of these pitch-perfect characters, Treme is not a hopeful show. These are not people waiting on some deus ex machina to come in and save them. They do not dwell. They move on. They do it up and down the street, and all over the lawn. While I can honestly say nothing made me guffaw or tear up, I'm pretty sure I felt every other way I could possibly feel. Much of it was jubilance. David Simon is King Midas.
Not only is there an appropriate amount of special features here, all of them are of high HBO quality. Realize that it has a lot to do with the music, so recall my words from earlier.
There are just two featurettes, but they go hand in hand. "The Making of Treme" is a 15-minute run-through from concept to finished product. "Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street" is a half-hour-long extension of the show, delving much into New Orleans itself, and how the city's history informs the storylines. David Simon, with co-creator and fellow TV scribe Eric Overmeyer, explains his intentions of focusing on the culture without exploiting it. Loads of the cast and crew, some of them N.O. natives, speak their praises of the show's authenticity, all while knocking the inaccuracies. Many musicians pop up here as well.
There are five episode commentaries from Simon, Overmeyer, John Goodman, Wendell Pierce, Khandi Alexander, and some of the show's producers and writers. These are all informative and passionately spoken. Too much can be said about each aspect of the show, so nothing gets slow or boring.
Each episode also gets a music commentary, as well as "The Music of Treme" to enjoy while watching an episode. The latter is only a title card signifying the song and artist whenever music is heard on screen. The commentary is a shade more complex, drawing on the expertise of N.O. jazz radio vet Josh Jackson and NPR's Patrick Jarenwattananon to inform the hell out of viewers about the songs being played during the show. Oddly enough, they drop out whenever the music is done. Bad time utilization, but I'll deal with it.
The only thing I could further wish for would be the inclusion of a soundtrack CD. Otherwise, I'm as happy as a lark, which can fly off of a roof if it gets stranded there. The only reason Treme exists is because New Orleans is a stronger city than the odds would have you believe. For once, a representation stands almost as true to the city itself.