HBO’s Treme is about post-Katrina New Orleans. It is about the people who struggle each day to make the city’s famed music, its distinctive food, and those – including lawyers, police, bar owners, others – who suffered or profited from the tragedy of the flood and political travesty that followed the 2005 hurricane.
Like The Wire, the series previously master-minded by David Simon, Treme is layered, “novelistic” television. Unlike its predecessor, Treme avoids genre storytelling. It is not, essentially, about cops and drug dealers or about the kinds of good guys and bad guys that cop shows and noir novels have made the public comfortable with. Treme takes a less obvious, yet deeply meaningful path toward its audience’s heart. The most compelling protagonist is a trombone player who fails at leading a band and becomes a high school music teacher. He’s not Tony Soprano or even Stringer Bell. He doesn’t even own a car.
Sadly,Treme has struggled to find an audience over three seasons. On 1 December 2013, it returns for a fourth micro-season of just a five episodes, a “half a loaf”, according to Simon, that HBO was able to grant him after Season Three was delivered to the network last year. Now, of course, that season is available on DVD, and rewatching it reveals a story that has been deepening with each season, honing its characters.
This third installment of the story takes place between the autumn of 2007 and the spring of 2008, two years removed from the storm. In many ways, this third season reveals, more than anything else, that the problems in the characters’ lives preceded Katrina. The storm was just another stress, a terrible one, but Antoine Batiste was a dog in his personal life and equally uncommitted in his musical life before the flood, or so it must be. Sonny’s drug addiction wasn’t caused by Katrina. And Toni Bernette was certainly fighting injustice and corruption as a lawyer going way back.
Some things, at least, are on the mend in this season. Self-destructive Sonny, so frustrating to follow in earlier seasons, is not only mostly clean, but he is successfully pursuing Lihn (as well as courting her shrimp-boat father). Antoine has settled down, and his new job teaching kids has started to mean something to him that even his own band could not.
When things look up, however, they also may not be all that they seem. Annie, a classical violinist, is leading a band that is getting great gigs, but is she an authentic singer-songwriter if her inspiration (and some of her material) comes from her murdered mentor Harley? And is she aware of music industry exploitation? Delmond has a new album out that is getting good reviews, but he’s told that the only way to reach for commercial success is to leave home again. Janette is given the chance to return from New York to her own restaurant, but will she really have the artistic control that she needs?
Each of the stories in this season of Treme seems to echo or reinforce other stories. So Janette’s old boyfriend Davis (who is now dating Annie) is struggling with his own sense of artistic control, working on a New Orleans “opera” of original music that will feature many older, out-of-work NOLA legends. But he’s unable to get his sole money source, his aunt, to maintain the financing he needs.
This theme of defining your work, of having the necessary autonomy to thrive, needn’t be only expressed in music and cooking. LaDonna, who has endured horrible violence, is forced to live with her judgmental in-laws in a situation beyond her control. And Toni faces questions of control and autonomy with regard to her daughter, whose growing independence we root for even as it seems a bit reckless.
Season Three brings in one substantially new character and features a Season Two character to much greater effect. Toni finds common cause with a reporter named L.P. Everett (Chris Coy), who needs her help as he tracks a story that overlaps with her concerns. Everett is an outsider, someone who sees New Orleans like most viewers do: with fascination, frustration, and affection. Ultimately, though, he will get to leave behind the distress he is uncovering.
Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) from the prior season is an opportunistic land developer who is in equal parts smitten with Big Easy culture and drawn to the possibility of a quick buck. Is he utterly without scruples? It’s hard to say. The plotline in which he gets Delmond and his dad Albert (Clarke Peters) to be musical “advisers” on a commercial redevelopment of the famed Congo Park where “jazz was invented” is a perfect mix of cynicism and moxie. Hidalgo can also leave the city if he chooses, but Albert and Delmond feel its hooks in not just their taste buds, but their hearts, as well.
Treme is the most kaleidoscopic show being produced these days. It forces viewers to connect the dots. Its artistry in the arc of the episodes demonstrates gorgeous design throughout the season. But this show has a tone and sensibility that is absolutely singular and clear. There is a beautiful ache to Treme, a yearning that comes from the music and dreams of the characters. It feels like nothing else on television.
More than anything, this show does music right, and it’s in the music that the show transcends everything else and just feels perfect. Season Three ends with a series of seeming celebrations: Everett’s article is published in The Nation, Annie’s band has its CD come out, Antoine is starting a weekend band for his students, Janette’s restaurant is taking off, and Delmond and Albert look like they are going to get the Congo Square “jazz center” happening.
But truth (and cynicism) is around every corner. The restaurant is being driven by profits rather than the artistry of the food itself; Everett’s article results in no official investigation; LaDonna’s rape trial ends with a hung jury. Still, the music is transcendent. Antoine and Delmond put together a musical extravaganza to help raise funds for the arson of LaDonna’s bar—and Janette supplies the food. The Blue Nile on Frenchman’s Street is filled with great musicians and so many of the amazing characters we’ve been following. In the face of tragedy, people still rise up through art.
The very end to the season’s final, bittersweet episode uses music in amazing ways. As Albert listens to “TIpitina” on his iPod while receiving chemotherapy, the song becomes the soundtrack to a closing montage that mixes joy and tragedy: Sonny and Lihn marry, Annie moves out of Davis’s apartment to start her tour, Janette’s restaurant goes on without her input… and we see the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in the background on television.
The DVD box set contains all the usual extras: commentaries mainly, and particularly about the music. These days, those may be the best reasons to buy boxed sets, what with so much video available on demand for less money. But Treme feels like a show you might just want to “own”, if that concept still has any meaning. Maybe it’s not for binge-watching so much as for savoring .