Treme: Season 1
DVD + DVD Audio | Box Set
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Amid the ruins of an American city, ordinary people--musicians, chefs, residents--find themselves clinging to a unique culture and wondering if the city that gave birth to that culture still has a future. From the creators of The Wire comes a new series about adversity and the human spirit, set in New Orleans, in the aftermath of the greatest man-made disaster in American history. Welcome to Treme.
As Treme opens, a group of New Orleans residents are celebrating their first "second-line parade" since Hurricane Katrina blew through the city and across the Gulf Coast just three months earlier. Folks are strutting and dancing, a brass band is blowing a joyful noise--it's a celebration of "NOLA's" resilience and proud spirit ("Won't bow--don't know how," as they say). But there's darkness just below this shiny surface, and anyone familiar with The Wire, cocreator-writer David Simon's last show, won't be a bit surprised to find that he and fellow Treme writer-producer Eric Overmyer aren't shy about going there. The New Orleans we see is a city barely starting to recover from what one character calls "a man-made catastrophe… of epic proportions and decades in the making." Many people's homes are gone, and insurance payments are a rumor. Other locals haven't come back, and still others are simply missing. The people have been betrayed by their own government, and New Orleans's reputation for corruption is hardly helped by the fact that the police force is in such disarray that the line between cop and criminal is sometimes so fine as to be nonexistent. Bad, but not all bad. NOLA still has its cuisine, its communities, and best of all its music, which permeates every chapter, from the Rebirth Brass Band's "I Feel Like Funkin' It Up" in episode 1 to Allen Toussaint and "Cha Dooky-Doo" in episode 10. There's Dixieland and zydeco, natch, but also hip-hop and rock; there are NOLA stalwarts like Dr. John, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, and the Meters (as well as appearances by Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, and others), but plenty of younger, lesser knowns, too. Whether we hear it in the street, in a club or a recording studio, at home, or anywhere, music is the lifeblood of the city and this series, and it's handled brilliantly.
Treme has a lot of characters and their stories to keep up with. There's trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a wonderful player but kind of a dog, especially to his current baby mama and his ex-wife, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), a bar owner who's desperately searching for her missing brother. There's Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a writer preoccupied with telling the world what's really going on in the city, and his wife Toni (Melissa Leo), a lawyer and thorn in the side of the authorities. There's Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a well-meaning but annoyingly clueless radio DJ, his occasional girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens), who's struggling to keep her restaurant open, and Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), who returns from Houston, finds his house in ruins, and sets about rebuilding it. You might not like all of them. Not all get through the series unscathed, or even alive. But that's part of the deal. The show feels authentic: dialogue (natural, plain, and profane), story lines, locations, camera work, the utter lack of gloss and glamour--this is no Chamber of Commerce travelogue. It's not a documentary either, but there are moments when it's just down and dirty enough to pass for one. --Sam Graham
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I agree with other reviewers that it takes time to get into it. I watched in small segments like 30 min at a time, so I'm not sure, but it took me a while to get to the point where if I had to stop I couldn't wait to continue. But somewhere after the middle of season one I was engrossed, and by the end of season one I was totally smitten and couldn't wait to continue with season two.
This series is musically fantastic, refreshingly politically astute, and as it goes on with the lives of its various characters it gets into you.
Frequent musical performances from New Orleans musicians are freely intercut with conventional scenes, often unknown to general audiences but varied in style and almost invariably entertaining. Several characters are musicians, and despite my own background as a jazz trombonist, I genuinely thought that the actors were playing for real until the DVD extras broke that illusion. However, a colorful and diverse variety of faces representing the full breadth of the city work their way in.
Several actors from The Wire and other David SImon projects are reused, including stars Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce and yet it is to their credit that I almost never thought of their old, iconic characters. Other performers range from New Orleans locals and various musicians to well-known film actors taking a rare dip in TV. The writing and production staff includes many Wire alums, and though the tone of the new show is different, the richness of detail, naturalism, restraint, and philosophical aspirations of the product remain.
There are a few surprise plot twists, but Treme is largely just about watching characters go about their daily lives. The show is strongly and explicitly post-Katrina, but aspires to tell a broader story of people's lives after the news cameras left. It requires patience, but is ultimately a tremendously entertaining and rewarding viewing experience. The set includes a few documentaries and commentaries and a lot of supplemental information about the music, and also characteristically beautiful packaging, but the show itself is what matters. It didn't get much press or viewership at all while it aired, but it is well worth watching on DVD.
There are similarities between The Wire and Treme, for sure; in terms of structure, there's again a large ensemble cast of complex and fascinating characters, and thematically, again we see a fearlessness in portraying how race and social class are lived and understood. And again, there's the sense that all the characters are living their lives in the shadow of another dominant, yet unseen character, only this one has a name: Katrina.
The main difference between the unseen antagonists of The Wire and Treme is that in the Baltimore we see portrayed in The Wire, the sense is that the Status Quo, with its class contradictions, its crushing poverty, and its political opportunism, has always been grinding on in the background, always exerting itself on a largely unwitting cast of characters. Most of those aspects are also present in the New Orleans of Treme, but in the latter series, all of those contradictions have been violently churned up in the single catastrophic event of Hurricane Katrina, and all of the characters are literally and figuratively picking up the pieces, and sorting through the wreckage. Meanwhile the man-made catastrophe of capitalism, and all of its crushing social, economic, and political relations, churns on.
However, this is anything but a network franchise: Treme is not The Wire: New Orleans. The similarities, and the differences, are more in the deep background, and are largely more felt than seen or heard. Simon, the production crew, and the cast bring Treme to life through deeply delving into the characters and their setting, feeling their way through the difficulties that post-Katrina New Orleans (and America) imposes on them in diverse and authentically human ways. And damn, man, you can't say enough about how the music and the culture sustain people, and give them a sense that they have something worth fighting for. While I'd love to see a series come along in which the characters caught up in this intolerable Status Quo grow past merely adjusting their lives to it, and actually try to come together to overthrow or otherwise totally transform it, a series like Treme in the meantime gives us a lot of political, social and artistic raw material to feed and fuel our thinking in deep ways.