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Treme: The Complete First Season

(HBO; US DVD: 29 Mar 2011)

Treme, created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, chronicles life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Simon’s previous series, The Wire bears a striking resemblance to Treme, not in subject matter but in larger overarching themes, such as people surviving in extenuating circumstances and issues of institutional corruption.  New Orleans, post-Katrina, is rife with complexity and struggle, and Treme offers a riveting portrait of a city in the midst of such disarray.


The series uses a large and varied cast to tell the stories of a city grappling with tremendous loss and uncertainty; and in representing so many characters, it achieves a fully realized representation of tragedy and adversity met with resilience and hope.  In fleshing out no less than ten main characters and a host of supporting characters, Simon and Overmyer offer experiences seemingly unrelated, yet thoroughly connected though the chaos that ensues after the hurricane.  In many ways, the relationships that develop may never have come together were it not for the storm. 


Treme’s large ensemble cast makes it difficult to touch upon each story in this review, but it should be noted that they are fully three dimensional characters and therefore, the real consequences of such a devastating disaster are deeply felt by the viewer.  Simon has never shied away from portraying gritty, hard truths and Treme certainly depicts a New Orleans in the middle of significant obstacles, while its inhabitants struggle daily to reconcile life before and after Katrina. 


In dealing with the direct aftermath of the storm, characters are in various stages of adjustment.  Janette’s (Kim Dickens) restaurant is unable to keep up with bills, while she is in a home that is partially unlivable.  Albert (Clarke Peters) is committed to his preparations for Mardi Gras as an Indian chief, despite the fact that the majority of his tribe is missing.  Creighton (John Goodman), a university English professor and author, takes to the internet to post his scathing, unedited rants on the current state of New Orleans and the federal government’s appalling response.  With no other outlet for their anger and disappointment, these characters try to find ways in which to take back their previous lives, whether it’s possible or not.  Unfortunately, New Orleans is in such chaos that even the simplest daily task becomes an overwhelming challenge.


Toni (Melissa Leo) exemplifies the difficulties in dealing with not only an unending bureaucracy, but also with shifting expectations for what is actually workable in a system that has all but literally been washed away. A lawyer working for LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) as she searches for her missing brother, Toni runs into roadblock after roadblock in her attempts to get even the most basic information and her efforts are exhausting. 


Additionally, following the lives of musicians such as trombonist Antoine (Wendell Pierce), buskers Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli), and trumpeter Delmond (Rob Brown), the series balances their struggles in finding work and trying to maintain a life in a New Orleans with many venues and musical opportunities no longer available.  Their stories converge in small moments that serve to illustrate the camaraderie and interconnectedness of the music scene in New Orleans.  For example, in one scene Antoine is walking home drunk after a gig and stumbles upon Sonny and Annie playing in the street.  He joins in singing and it’s a moment that shines in its simple linking of these characters.  That brief encounter was as natural a way to bring them together and show that very interconnectedness in the unobtrusive way that Treme does so well.


The use of music cannot be underestimated in Treme, both in terms of setting a tone and establishing place, but also as a way to emphasize its importance in the lives of New Orleans residents.  In fact, it’s such an important part of the series that three out of the six special features on the DVD are focused on music.  Not only does Treme include several musicians as lead characters, but music is universally understood within the series to be as integral to life as anything else.  Moreover, Treme seamlessly incorporates real musicians throughout—Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, among others—in a way that further highlights its commitment to an authentic portrait of a city. The music in the series is so perfectly incorporated that it is impossible to imagine a better reflection of and ambassador for New Orleans.


In spite of all the difficulties faced by all these characters on Treme, there is still a lightness to the series that brings hope, even if it doesn’t always pay off.  Perhaps no character exemplifies positivity as well as Davis (Steve Zahn).  Music loving, pot smoking, and mildly rebellious, he is content to casually date Janette, host his radio show, and generally opine on anything and everything New Orleans-related.  In what may be one of the most joyous scenes in the season, Davis puts together a group of musicians to record a new version of “Shame, Shame, Shame” with lyrics about Hurricane Katrina.  It’s a wonderful moment of fun and solidarity that perfectly encapsulates the undeniable draw of Treme and the again, the music of New Orleans.


Just as it would be impossible to discuss Treme without its music, the same can be said for its cast.  It would be fruitless to single out any one performance, as they all have wonderful moments. A cast as talented and uniformly excellent as this is rare, but Treme also benefits from a stellar cast of unknowns and non-actors.  Even the musicians who guest star as themselves, are as smoothly integrated as any of the leads.  There’s a looseness to their interactions that speaks to a real commitment to time and place, emphasizing that authenticity that is immediately engaging.


Treme is unflinching in its depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans, focusing on loss and devastation without easy answers or solutions, all the while unapologetically celebrating the history of a city as rich in culture as New Orleans.  Whether it be music, food, or politics, they all play a role in telling this story, and combined with an excellent cast, Treme brilliantly does so without succumbing to any storytelling conventions that would cheapen or disrespect the city in such a trying time.  As the season ends, there’s an open-ended messiness to the overall story that mirrors the same unsettled time felt by the ‘real’ New Orleans.


The Blu-ray bonus features in the DVD set are first-rate.  They include episode commentaries, music commentaries, and featurettes that focus on the subject matter of the series, as well as the process in creating it.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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