Sunday, March 16, 2014

Treme All the Way

I’m not much of a TV-watcher, but I made a big pot of gumbo to eat while we watched the two concluding episodes of the HBO series Treme. The show is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it follows seven or eight story-lines that cut across lines of race and class with ease. Among the themes it explores are police corruption, restaurant management, the survival of traditional music in New Orleans, drug use, teen violence, and the incompetence of various level of government in dealing with the housing issues raised by the hurricane.

In the course of following these strands of narrative, we get to know a large ensemble of remarkable characters, so that by the time we reach episode 38, many of them have become far more than mere acquaintances. And the time devoted to the music and rituals of several subcultures within the city gives the series an almost anthropological caste.

And that’s good.          

If I were to attempt a two-paragraph synopsis of the plot, I would begin by observing that  LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) has enlisted the aid of liberal-minded lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) to find her brother, who went missing in the hurricane. Bernette’s husband Creighton (John Goodman), an English professor at Tulane, hosts a video blog on which he spares no explicative in excoriating the powers that be on their incompetency, though he’s troubled by the fact that he can’t finish his “flood” novel, begun decades ago but now suddenly relevant again. LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine (Wendell Pierce) seems to be happy gigging around the city on his trombone, though his new wife Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) wants him to quit tomcatting around and get a real job so they can qualify for a housing loan.

On the other side of the tracks, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is working hard to escape his patrician roots and promote the musical traditions of the city as a D.J. and through a variety of independent projects. His erstwhile girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens) is having an equally hard time keeping her restaurant afloat in a city that no longer seems attractive to tourists. Occasional influxes of cash from her parents can only take her so far. 

Out on the street, French-American violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli) performs with her Dutch boyfriend  Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who’s in danger of becoming a crack-head. Meanwhile, Indian “chief” Albert  Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) has been among the first to move back into the damaged Treme neighborhood, where he works to fix up his house and continues sewing beaded garments for the next Mardi Gras parade. Albert’s son Delmond (Rob Brown) has made a name for himself as a modern jazz trumpeter, and he’s torn throughout the series by conflicting desires to further his career in New York and keep the family traditions alive in New Orleans.   

I know I’ve missed a few of the principle characters—the cop Terry Colson (David Morse), the sous chef  Jacques Jhoni (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), LaDonna’s current husband Larry (Lance Nichols), the Texan contractor David Hidalgo (Jon Seda). In any case, a lot is going to happen in thirty-eight hours of drama. But really there’s only about twenty-four hours of such stuff, because a good deal of Treme consists of music and parties and parades.

This may be one of those shows where it helps if you’ve actually been there. Fans of trad jazz, grind, Cajun music, blues, etc. are probably going to like it. Among the performers that appear in extended numbers are Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins, John Boutte, Steve Earl, Cassandra Wilson, Elvis Costello, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Peyton, Trombone Shorty, Shawn Colvin, Juvenile, Terence Blanchard, Fats Domino, and Lucinda Williams.

Treme takes us to many places tourists would never find, and would be reluctant to seek out in any case. There are elements of drama and danger, and a few people do get killed. But such events are the exception, not the rule.

The strength of Treme lies in the fact that it flows like life, not like melodrama. There are so many stories intertwined that we're often allowed to suspend our interest in the drama and enjoy the passing scene.

Wendell Piece, who plays the trombonist Antoine Batiste, the show’s central figure, may have captured it's appeal best when he remarks:

“…what's so different about Treme is that it's trying really hard to capture culture, and show the impact culture has on people's lives. Culture is the intersection of people and life itself. It's how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment... all of that is expressed in culture. And we've lost that understanding in America. We don't understand the role of culture. The role of culture is that it's the form through which we as a society reflect on who we are, where we've been, where we hope to be. It's like the way thoughts are to the individual, but on a bigger scale. We only see the residual of it, the entertainment. "All right, perform, and entertain me." Entertainment is just a residual of culture. It is not the sole purpose of it. The sole purpose is that we kind of reflect on what the hell we're doing here, and how this thing of ours is going.”    

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