[31 January 2014]
Sometimes, the very first lines of a TV show are telling. Battlestar Galactica opens with a robot leaning close to a human being and asking: “Are you alive?” It is a question that will resonate throughout the entire five seasons of the show.
The Wire begins with the aftermath of a pointless murder, a young man named Snotboogie shot to death for stealing from a card game even though everyone at the game knew this would happen. The eyewitness’s explanation for this senseless death? “This is America, man.” As metaphors go, it’s less than subtle, but it makes its point.
The two opening conversations in Treme both concern payment for services rendered, whether by a second-line band or a taxi cab; they set up the punch line from the first scene of the whole series, as New Orleans freelance trombonist Antoine Batiste joins a street-marching brass band and exhorts his fellows to “Play for that money, boys! Play for that motherfuckin’ money!” That seemingly throwaway line is hugely significant to outlining one ongoing theme of the series: Treme is a show about the effects, good and bad, of money and its lack.
Oh sure, it’s about other things too: music and community and culture, survival in the face of bureaucratic indifference, faith and corruption, hard work and injustice. It’s about integrity or the lack of it, and tradition or the loss of it. It’s about belonging and not belonging, about insiders and outsiders and those who cross from one to the other and those who can’t. It’s about what it means to be home, to have a home, and to lose one and rebuild it, or not. It’s about all manner of elevated concerns like these; if you prefer, it’s about the sacred. But you can’t have the sacred without the engine of the profane motoring things along, and there’s nothing more profane than money.
So the characters in Treme struggle with money, or more often, without it. They strive to get it, whether gigging like Antoine to put a few bucks in his pocket, or playing on the street for tips like Sonny and Annie, or begging cash like Davis to start his own record label or sinking like restauranteur Janette under the lack of adequate capitalization. Carpetbagging Texan Nelson Hidalgo glides through post-Katrina New Orleans like a shark, seeking ways to make fast money, while big chief Albert Lambreaux waits for his insurance payout to rebuild his home. Smarmy city councilors talk about building a New Orleans Jazz Center in order to “monetize the culture”, reserving a big slice for themselves.
Everybody is waiting for FEMA money, insurance money, tourist money. Bar owners worry about overhead, college professors bemoan the closing of departments, musicians fret over their records that don’t sell. Over the course of the show’s three and half seasons, many of these characters manage to get some of their due. Few of them get all they deserve, though. Is that really so surprising?
This is a television show that focuses on numerous characters and their disparate storylines over a period of years. Storylines progress over the seasons, and viewers are going to get caught up in them almost against their will, whether it’s Khandi Alexander’s bar-owning small businesswoman who must battle a horrific turn of events, or Wendall Pierce’s free-living freelance musician who comes under pressure to settle down and work a steady job, or Kim Dickens’s chef who struggles, Job-like, against the obstacles to restaurant ownership in a decimated city, or Steve Zahn’s perpetual teenager who decides to run for public office. All these characters, and many more, live through a series of ups and downs that sees them all struggling to get by and get ahead, and while there are casualties, the show’s overriding tone is one of perseverance and hope. Hope doled out in tiny increments, it’s true, but hope nonetheless.
Strong performances mark these storylines, as well. There’s not a weak performance in the bunch, though Pierce must be singled out for his effortlessly charismatic turn as Antoine, and Melissa Leo is note-perfect as the fragile-but-tough public interest lawyer who takes on a corrupt New Orleans Police Department. Clarke Peters’s Big Chief Lambreaux is another standout, as is Alexander’s tough-but-shaken bar owner LaDonna; add in dozens if not hundreds of supporting players and you get a cast as varied and heartfelt as any on TV today, or any day.
Then of course there is the music. The emphasis here is on traditional New Orleans jazz, so that means plenty of trumpets, trombones and saxes, with raw-throated singing and call-and-response vocal structures. There’s room here for other stuff, though, including Cajun zydeco, acoustic folk, hip-hop, funk, British Isles sea shanties, harmony quartets, heavy metal, modern jazz, and any number of comminglings and hybrids. Treme is a show steeped in music – it’s what its characters care about, and it assumes that you care about it, too. Certainly there are other plot threads, but it is music that binds together many of them.
The set is worth it, though. This newly-issued Blu-ray edition of Treme: The Complete Series is an absolute knockout, a terrific series showcased in an outstanding format with copious bonus features that add much to the experience of watching the show. These features are a treasure trove for fans. Viewers who have bought previous Blu-ray sets of the individual seasons will want to know if there is anything new here, and the answer is yes, but many of the fine features from previous sets are also included.
There are multiple commentary tracks with cast and crew members, including writer-producer David Simon, as well as music-specific commentaries with such experts as NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon and Josh Jackson of jazz radio station WBGO, who provide useful background and engaging tidbits about the musicians onscreen. Individual seasons also have multiple featurettes on such topics as “Beyond Bourbon Street”, “The Art of Treme” and “The Music of Treme”. Taken individually, these features add to the viewing experience, but taken en masse, they are almost overwhelming in their scope and generosity.
The new bonus material simply piles on even more. Each of the first three seasons includes a feature called “Down in the Treme: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans”, which consists of an “in-episode viewing guide” that allows the viewer to access extra information about a number of topics including music, cuisine, geography of the city and so on. This information is accessed from a menu across the bottom of the picture, and can be selected at any time during a given episode. It’s a bit distracting to read through this info while the episode itself is playing, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Given that every episode of this show contains multiple scenes of music and musicians, local landmarks and food, this amounts to a heaping mass of information and insight.
“The Music of Treme” helpfully points out the myriad of guest musicians and provides a brief synopsis of their careers and significance. Given how much music appears in any given episode – whether as background music, street performance, or guest star cameo – this is a useful resource for any interested viewer. As if all that weren’t enough, the Complete Series Blu-ray includes another entire bonus disc of material, containing 15 full-length performances of songs taken from various points in the series: John Hiatt performing “Feels Like Rain”, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint dueting on “The Greatest Love”, Dr John with “My Indian Red”, and many others, including some performances by the cast (Steve Zahn performing “Road Home” as DJ Davis and the Brassy Knoll, for example).
None of this bonus material would be terribly interesting were the series itself not so strong. But it is – and as a love letter to New Orleans, the show is unmatched. Treme will be remembered as a landmark series, not as popular as some others, perhaps (Mad Men, Game of Thrones) but every bit as influential. This blu-ray set is the way to own it, if ownership is what you crave. With crystalline sound and a picture as clear and full as it’s possible to make it, and oodles of extras to make re-viewing as satisfying as possible, this is a set that belongs in any serious TV library.