Judge Clark Douglas enjoys hanging in the Treme and watching people sashay.
Wrap your troubles in dreams.
"Let Bourbon Street be Bourbon Street, gentlemen."
Facts of the Case
It's been 14 months since Hurricane Katrina devastated the great city of New Orleans, and the citizens of that city are still trying to return to some semblance of normality. Alas, there have been precious few signs of forward momentum. So what are all of our favorite characters up to?
Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, The Wire) is has begun to lose his passion for the traditions he has been a part of for so many years; a frustration exacerbated by the exasperating red tape thrown at him by insurance companies and city officials. Meanwhile, Albert's son Delmond (Rob Brown, The Express) struggles to find both a musical identity and an audience despite the considerable praise of music critics.
Tireless attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, The Fighter) is still grieving over the loss of her husband, and finds herself swamped with thankless jobs as she attempts to aid the struggling people of New Orleans. Alas, her busy schedule has further alienated her from her daughter Sofia (India Ennega, The Women), who seems to be growing increasingly bitter and rebellious as time passes.
Trombone player Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, Horrible Bosses) has taken on two major new responsibilities: he now has a job as an assistant music teacher at a local school and has taken on the challenging task of starting his own band. Unfortunately, both jobs prove considerably more demanding than he imagined they would be.
The reckless Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn, Sahara) is now enjoying a warm romantic relationship with gifted violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli), and has just persuaded his wealthy aunt (Elizabeth Ashley, Evening Shade) to help him start a new music label. Meanwhile, Annie seeks to expand her musical career and continues to seek advice from the sage Harley Watt (Steve Earle, Leaves of Grass).
Sonny (Michiel Huisman, The Young Victoria) is making a valiant attempt to remain sober and does his best to make a living wherever he can find it.
LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander, NewsRadio) is sent into a deep personal spiral after suffering an assault, but she struggles to tell her husband (Lance E. Nichols, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) the truth about the nature of what really happened.
Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, Deadwood) has moved all the way to The Big Apple, where she's attempting a new career at a high-end restaurant as a member of an esteemed-yet-ruthless chef's staff.
Meanwhile, a pair of new characters have also entered the fray. First, there's Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse, The Green Mile), who struggles to find a balance between order and empathy in his job with the New Orleans Police Department. Secondly, there's Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda, The Pacific), a Texas contractor who has arrived in New Orleans with dollar signs in his eyes.
Many viewers complained that the first season of Treme—despite its fine cast, strong technical qualities, great music and thoughtful sociopolitical commentary—just moved too slow. The plot never seemed to go anywhere in a rush; episodes would frequently just grind to a halt and ask us to spend time soaking in the atmosphere. Moving into season two, Treme addresses those complaints by delivering a season which unfolds at an even more languid, unhurried pace. This isn't a typical hour-long drama. It isn't even a typical HBO hour-long drama. In fact, it isn't even a typical David Simon show. It's a unique piece of television that allows us to better understand its ideas and themes by allowing us to feel as if we're living with the characters. Those who found the first season tedious won't be converted, but those who felt the first season was rich and engaging will find that season two is even more skillful and absorbing in its analysis of post-Katrina New Orleans.
The most immediately striking change between the freshman and sophomore season is just how much darker the show has become. Episodes frequently open and close on exceptionally downbeat notes, and the moments of joy which appear in-between are fewer and further between. To be sure, the first season had its share of darker material, but it was an often an effective portrait of the New Orleans' dual nature as one of the most heavenly and hellish cities in America. The second season has a more distinctively funereal tone; hardships are around every corner and victories are scarce. And yet, for all of its weighty material, Treme never becomes a piece of overwrought, miserablist television. Part of what makes the material so bleak is that we grow to love both the characters and the city they live in a great deal, which makes it all the more challenging when we see them facing hardships.
Though it could be argued that Treme hasn't yet reached its full potential, it offers unparalleled atmosphere and a tremendous sense of place. Even moreso than The Wire, it makes the viewer feel as if they've just paid an extended visit to a very specific part of the country, and the non-sensationalist, laid-back approach has a lot to do with that. So does the music, which continues to be one of the program's most exhilarating attributes. Whether we're just dropping in on an obscure local artist or visiting with a legend like Dr. John, the show trots out an astounding number of terrific musicians performing fantastic jazz, R&B, bounce, swing, Cajun and folk music. Between the persuasive dialogue, natural ambiance and exhilarating music, Treme might be the best-sounding show on television.
Speaking of which, some of the strongest material Treme trots out in its second season is its examination of life in the music business. Through Annie, it explores the considerable challenges of songwriting. Through Delmond, it explores the manner in which too much of our musical history is neglected as time passes. Through Albert (yes, Albert), it explores the difficulty of collaboration. Through Antoine, it explores the alternating challenges and rewards of leading vs. supporting. Through Davis, it explores the manner in which the music industry naturally gravitates towards the mindless and superficial. All of this is terrific, thoughtful, insightful stuff which should prove immensely rewarding for those who take music seriously.
The larger issues of crime and political corruption are touched on a little more in this season, though with somewhat mixed results. The show is quite successful in the former area, with a much greater emphasis placed on the Police Lieutenant played by David Morse (who only appeared briefly in the first season). It's touching to see co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmeyer consider the conscience of the police department even as they criticize some of its glaring oversights, and Morse's quiet performance is consistently superb. Less successful is the political commentary, as Jon Seda's budding New Orleans enthusiast feels too disconnected from the action and gets stuck in the season's most consistently underwhelming storyline. It's not bad, but it feels tacked-on rather than a natural part of the show's fabric.
The central cast members continue to do terrific work in this season, with Khandi Alexander emerging as season two's MVP. Her handling of the assault storyline is incredibly moving; undoubtedly the high point of Alexander's career to date. I remain impressed with The Wire veterans Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce, who continue tin impress in their respective roles as Albert and Antoine. Steve Zahn also gets to evolve as a character this season, as Davis actually seems to be making a valiant attempt to grow as a human being and becomes far more tolerable as a result (though Zahn's performance has been spot-on from the beginning). I also want to make special mention of the work Steve Earle does in this season. His turn as the grizzled, amiable Harley is nothing short of fantastic, and the scenes he shares with Annie are some of the best this season has to offer. It's not just stunt casting; Earle is a tremendously natural performer who fits seamlessly into Treme's world.
Treme: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) has received a sublime 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which further adds to the immersive nature of the show. Typical of HBO's recent hi-def releases, the transfer benefits from superb detail, impressive depth, strong shadow delineation and vibrant colors. It's an even more visually involving show than The Wire (despite taking a similarly no-nonsense, handheld approach to many scenes) and viewers can appreciate every little perfectly-captured visual detail with this fine release. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also fantastic—just listen to the way the music fills the room when that infectious main title kicks in. Dialogue is clean and clear, the detailed sound design is well-captured and the musical sequences have a considerable amount of kick. Awesome.
The supplemental package is simultaneously generous and underwhelming. The best features are the four audio commentaries the set provides. "Accentuate the Positive" features director Anthony Hemingway and actors Kim Dickens and Lucia Micarelli, "Carnival Time" features director Brad Anderson and music supervisor Blake Leyh, "What is New Orleans?" feature writer George Pelecanos and actors Clarke Peters and Rob Brown and "That's What Lovers Do" features David Simon, actor Wendell Pierce and executive producer Nina Noble. All four tracks are worthwhile listens. Less worthwhile is the "Down in the Treme: The Music and Culture of New Orleans" interactive feature, which tends to be dull and superficial. The same applies to the middling "The Music of Treme" feature. There are scene-specific music commentaries on each episode, all of which are worth checking out. You also get a 33-minute Q&A with Simon, Overmeyer and Peter called "The Art of Treme," a 9-minute featurette called "Behind Treme: Food for Thought" and a 9-minute featurette entitled "Behind Treme: Clarke Peters and the Mardi Gras Indians." A mixed bag of items overall, but the featurettes and commentaries are worth checking out.
I really wish more of you were watching this show. It's not the kind of program which hooks you with a fun premise or which leaves you breathless with weekly cliffhangers. It's the kind of show which—given enough time—seeps into your system and lingers with you; continually providing you with things to chew on weeks after you're done with it. It's enriching, engaging, thought-provoking television which educates and entertains with equal skill. Drop one of those reality shows or CBS procedurals and dig into this great series. Here's looking forward to season three.
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