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Our review of Treme: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray), published April 24th, 2012, is also available.
Won't Bow—Don't Know How.
"That's nothing to be ashamed of. There's pride on Bourbon Street."
Facts of the Case
The year is 2005. It's been six months since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The media frenzy has died down, and the city has fallen out of the national spotlight despite the fact that it remains desperately in need. Slowly but surely, some of the residents are trying to put their lives back together. During this period, we are introduced to frustrated English Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman, Barton Fink) and his civil rights attorney wife Toni (Melissa Leo, The Fighter), down-and-out trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, The Wire) and his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander, NewsRadio), DJ and musician Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn, Out of Sight), struggling restaurateur Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, Deadwood), musicians Sonny (Michiel Huisman, The Young Victoria) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli), Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, The Wire) and his musician son Delmond (Rob Brown, The Express), along with many others. This is the story of a city attempting to rise from the ashes of tragedy.
It's been said over and over again that David Simon's The Wire is one of the greatest, most ambitious programs in television history. You won't find any argument with that notion in this review. In fact, the fourth season of The Wire may very well be the single finest season of television I've ever seen. When it was announced that Simon would be doing a new show for HBO set in post-Katrina New Orleans, many quickly assumed that the show would essentially be The Wire: New Orleans. This is most assuredly not the case, and the faster one gets over that silly hangup the faster one will be able to appreciate the unique greatness of Treme.
The Wire places its focus on Baltimore and some of the specific issues that afflict that area, but the themes of the show tend to be larger than the location. It's an urban drama of epic proportions; a meditation on the agonizingly cyclical nature of life and the near-futility of attempting to achieve significant change. Treme is specifically about a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time; its focus is considerably more intimate than that of The Wire. It offers us a chance to look in on a group of individuals attempting to rebuild their lives in the wake of devastation, and allows us to examine how this tragedy reshaped the everyday existence of the people of New Orleans.
Despite being rooted in horrific tragedy, Treme reaches surprising levels of joy at times. There's a certain thrill that comes with witnessing the small successes that occur. Yes, a woman's roof has been fixed. Yes, they're going to have Mardi Gras this year after all. Yes, a loved one that has been missing for months has been found. By no means is the show a demonstration of false optimism; there are almost unbearably bleak moments on a regular basis. It's because life in this New Orleans is so oppressive and difficult that seeing people find some measure of happiness there from time to time is so rewarding.
For all of the slice-of-life moments found in The Wire, that show feels so carefully plotted and constructed. This is partially due to the nature of the show; watching people on both sides of the law setting up complex operations piece by piece is naturally going to have a fairly structured feel. Treme is also a product of careful plotting, but it gives the viewer a stronger "fly on the wall" sensation; many moments feel "captured" rather than staged. This is television at its most Altmanesque, as many of the best lines and most beautiful moments occur over in the corner rather than in dramatic closeups.
Because this show is specifically about a particular place, Simon takes plenty of time to just immerse us in the atmosphere. There is so much music present in Treme, and it feels as natural and organic a part of the proceedings as the musical numbers in Glee feel hokey and staged. And what great music it is; a blend of familiar New Orleans standards and off-the-wall selections from local artists. Anytime someone is playing something (which is frequently), odds are we're going to pause for at least a little while (maybe only 30-40 seconds, maybe 2-3 minutes) to listen in. Just watch the masterful Mardi Gras episode ("All on a Mardi Gras Day"), which spends the majority of its running time casually guiding us through the sights and sounds of the carnival and using the experience to enhance the characters in subtle ways.
Also adding to the "you are there" experience is the fact that the show doesn't go out of its way to explain its eccentricities to you. Tremendous attention has been paid to making sure that this world seems authentic, but there will be moments when those who aren't natives of New Orleans will raise their eyebrows in curiosity and/or surprise. For instance, one supporting character spends much of his free time sewing together colorful Indian costumes and participating in impromptu street dances. Why is he doing this? What is the significance of it? The show won't tell us, but we know that it must be something important. Simon encourages us to find out on our own from time to time, as we might try to do if we saw something curious and unusual in real life. The show's willingness to embrace the unfamiliar is part of what makes it so persuasive.
The performances across the board are just marvelous, as are the characters the actors inhabit. My favorite may be the great Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste, a very talented trombone player whose gifts would be regarded as extraordinary in most other places. In New Orleans, he's just another trombone player. He's a good-natured fellow; friendly and fun to be around. Money has a way of burning a hole in his pocket and he's easily tempted by a lovely lady or a strong drink, but he genuinely loves his music and has a fundamentally good soul. Steve Zahn's Davis similarly allows his demons to trample his good instincts from time to time, though Davis is as pompously self-absorbed as Antoine is down-to-earth and giving. It's an insightful performance from Zahn, who gives us a character eternally trying (and often failing) to seem like something other than a complete tool.
Melissa Leo and John Goodman have fine chemistry together as a politically active married couple. She's an attorney seeking to aid those with problems in the wake of the storm; he's a professor seeking to enlighten those in power to the grave nature of New Orleans' situation. Goodman is an inverted version of his blustery, neoconservative character from The Big Lebowski; this time around it's equally blustery leftist rants (he finds the perfect outlet in Youtube, where he launches into a series of profane video speeches that quickly bring him unexpected fame—he becomes known in some circles as the "f—-- you f—-ing f—-s guy"). Leo goes about her task in a considerably quieter (but probably more effective) manner, tirelessly digging through the remains of paper trails that have largely been washed away or permanently ruined.
Clarke Peters is intensely enigmatic the aforementioned man who makes the Indian costumes; the show's most serious character and the man who represents a colder and more bitter form of moral outrage over what has been done to his city. He is intelligent but bull-headed, going as far as he needs to (and sometimes further) to prove a point to those he dislikes on a regular basis. This lands him jail for a while. Then there's Kim Dickens, so effectively weary as the sad restaurateur whose business is slowly going under despite the fact that her restaurant is packed every single night. The list goes on, but these players get the most time and are largely the most compelling.
Fun Fact: Keep an eye out for our own Judge Harold Gervais, who plays the hotel manager in episode two.
Treme: The Complete First Season arrives on Blu-ray sporting a tremendous 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The show's naturalistic look isn't exactly the definition of slick polish, but the imagery is captured precisely as the creators intended it. Detail is nothing short of superb, allowing the viewers to soak in every nuance of this world. Darker scenes benefit from considerable depth, and there's a thin layer of natural grain present throughout. There are certainly sequences that pop off the screen with bright New Orleans flair, but the show's standard operating procedure is no-frills realism. It looks quite good, but oh baby, it sounds spectacular. The music is such a tremendously important part of the show, and I was delighted to discover that the lossless audio is powerful, immersive stuff. The show's sound design is actually more complex than the HD television broadcasts indicated; further drawing the viewer into this carefully-detailed world.
Supplements are kind of generous, but also kind of superficial. "Down in the Treme: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans" is an interactive, text-only feature that allows the viewer to familiarize themselves with the music, slang, locations and characters of the show (plus plenty of other odds n' ends) while watching the episode. Some of it's informative; much of it is unnecessary. "The Music of Treme" is another text-based feature that draws upon the same info used in "Down in the Treme." Better are the audio commentaries: Creators David Simon and Eric Overmeyer on "Do You Know What it Means," Wendell Pierce, Khandi Alexander and critic Alan Sepinwall on "Right Place, Wrong Time," Overmeyer and producer/director Anthony Hemingway on "All on a Mardi Gras Day," writer George Pelicanos and John Goodman "Wish Someone Would Care" and finally Simon and producer Nina Noble on "I'll Fly Away." You also get scene-specific "music commentaries" on each episode, as Josh Jackson and Patrick Jarrenwattananon analyze the music of the show for 15 minutes or so per episode (you can skip ahead to the commentary-specific parts with the remote). Finally, the featurettes "The Making of Treme" (14 minutes) and "Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street" (29 minutes) are clip-heavy puff pieces.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have many complaints, but I will say that the show tends to be a little repetitive at times. There are a few moments which cover territory that has already been adequately covered, and certain subplots seem to drag along just for the sake of letting them run through the end of the season. This is particularly evident in the tale of Sonny, who becomes a tiresome guy rather quickly and isn't as well-developed as most of the other characters.
I should also use this area to address an issue that came up a good deal over the course of the first season's run. A frequent complaint from viewers was that the show has a nasty attitude towards those who don't live in New Orleans. Granted, outsiders are sometimes treated spitefully and there are numerous speeches about why just about every other part of the U.S. doesn't hold a candle to New Orleans. This is just part of the attitude that cities often take in the wake of a tragedy. Reflecting this accurately does not imply that the show hates non-native viewers; it only demonstrates an inevitable sense of pride in this city and bitterness towards those outsiders who claim to sympathize without having any real understanding of what has happened.
Treme has a bit of room to grow and improve, but after its first season it easily ranks as one of the better shows on television and is most assuredly one of the most important. The season one ratings weren't so good (even HBO viewers are far more interested in sexy vampires than in post-Katrina New Orleans), but fortunately the show was renewed for a second season. Here's hoping Treme will continue to build on the great things done in this season and evolve into the modern classic it has the potential to be.
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