[JPL] HBO's Treme: Just One Episode and Already More Jazz Than That
Whole Ken Burns Documentary!
drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Apr 12 21:42:33 EDT 2010
Treme Recap: Just One Episode and Already More Jazz Than That Whole Ken
by Julian Sancton
April 12, 2010, 1:04 PM
You hear /Treme,/ David Simon's new television series, before you see
it. Over black, with title cards that read "New Orleans, Three Months
Later," a trumpet sounds the staccato clarion call that traditionally
convenes the brass bands and second-liners and announces the beginning
of the street parade---/Puh-PAH puh-PAH/. With those four notes, Simon
makes two things clear: 1) this is going to be a show about music, and
2) he's done his research.
Instead of portraying a city, as they did with Baltimore in /The Wire/,
through its interconnected institutions---police, gangs, schools,
politics---Simon and his team focus on New Orleans's cultural
checkerboard, with each main character occupying a different square:
music, food, drink, nebulous mysticism, self-righteousness, white
expatriate civic engagement, et cetera. The result is a cast of
typical---cynics might say stereotypical---Crescent City personalities.
The boisterous brass-band parade through the Treme neighborhood that
kicks off the pilot---the first "second line" since the storm---draws
several of the main characters in its wake. First comes trombonist
Antoine Batiste (/The Wire/'s Wendell Pierce), whom we see bringing up
the rear of the parade with infectious funk riffs ("That's the Sixth
Ward in my bone," he says), and smack-talking with his fellow musicians.
He's neither at the bottom nor at the top of New Orleans's musical
hierarchy, and we can tell he's struggling because he routinely
shortchanges cabbies and doesn't appear to own a case for his trombone.
(As a proud trumpet owner, I winced when I saw his horn bell-down on the
The parade conveniently makes a pit stop in front of the bar owned by
Batiste's ex-wife, Ladonna (an excellent Khandi Alexander), whose family
was dispersed by the storm, mostly to Baton Rouge. She's still trying to
locate her brother, David, who seems to have disappeared from the prison
system during the exodus. To that end, she's engaged the help of public
interest lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), who butts up against
uncooperative, disorganized law enforcement. The federal
government---the show's villain, if there is one---is also the target of
her husband's anger. Played by a painfully obese John Goodman,
channeling Walter Sobchak's aggressive sanctimoniousness, novelist and
professor Creighton Bernette is the voice of the wounded city.
The parade's beats and high notes echo their way to the pigsty of an
apartment owned (or most likely rented) by buffoonish, roach-puffing
layabout Davis McAlary. Played by a convincingly insufferable Steve
Zahn, Davis is a D.J. by profession, but his main occupation seems to be
pontificating about the glory of New Orleans and pissing everybody off,
especially his gentrifying gay neighbors, whom he goads by blasting
Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" at full volume and turning the speakers
outwards. His character is concisely outlined in the first glimpse we
catch of him---namely his buttcrack. Davis was so
cringeworthy---especially when he attempts to engage Elvis Costello in
conversation at a bar---that I almost swore off the show because of him.
But to be honest, he's an accurate representation of a specific New
Orleans type: the self-righteous, self-destructive asshole. Think
Ignatius Reilly if he shaved the mustache and shed a few pounds. (In
fact, Davis is based---not so loosely, I'm told---on a real guy named
Davis Rogan, a consultant on /Treme/.) In an especially cruel injustice,
we find Davis in bed with one of the show's sweetest characters, Janette
Desautel (Kim Dickens), a young chef scrambling to rebuild her
restaurant and her clientele.
The show's opening credits are laid over the patterns of mold that
stagnant waters left on New Orleans walls. (Out of context, these almost
abstract images are quite beautiful.) But the full impact of the
destruction wrought by the storm isn't revealed until Albert Lambreaux
(/The Wire/'s Clarke Peters) returns home. Upon opening his front door,
he finds a sagging, soggy ceiling fan, overturned bookshelves, cracked,
muddy floors, and an overwhelming stench. With a face rarely smiles,
that looks like it was carved in wood, Lambreaux exudes solemnity. He's
the anti-Davis. And as the chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, he
channels New Orleans's vague aura of mysticism. The show's most haunting
image is of him, in his full, bright-orange Mardi Gras regalia, dancing
alone in the dark, empty street, chanting with a faux-voodoo intonation,
"Won't bow, don't know how."
The episode begins and ends with music, and there's plenty in between.
David Simon gives music ample time to play itself out. At one point, he
sets a montage to the entirety of Louis Prima's "Buona Sera." When I
heard this, I recalled that in the full 10 hours of Ken Burns's
documentary series on jazz, only one song plays all the way through,
Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues." As it happens, that song also plays
in /Treme/, in the background of a scene featuring Kermit Ruffins, one
of many established local musicians contributing performances---and
street cred---to the show. (Another was the late, great Bunchy Johnson,
whose funeral I attended
last time I was in the city.)
One might be tempted to accuse Simon and his co-creator Eric Overmeyer
of loving the city too much. Indeed, the show seems at times to be less
of a warts-and-all portrait of a city than a showcase of its best-known
attributes. In just one episode, they manage to cram in jazz,
street-drinking, sex, red beans and rice, mardi gras beads, lemon ice,
and the New Orleans Saints.
But they show restraint in other ways: the French Quarter, for example,
isn't shown until minute 46, and even then, only to reveal the one true
bit of destruction the storm brought to the above-ground historic
district (the "isle of denial" as it's referred to in the show): the
shuttering of Tower Records. What's more, the pilot contains neither
Katrina-related deaths nor any mention of Bush, though both will be
included in subsequent episodes.
It's never clear whether the show is meant for New Orleanians or
outsiders, but maybe that's what makes it accurate. It's a feature of
New Orleans exceptionalism for its inahabitants to constantly brag about
their city. And there's a lot to brag about.
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