I just didn’t mention it. Being an old football player, I think those people in Katrina were probably appreciative of the fact that I acknowledged the Saints.
— Former Rep. J.C. Watts, “In New Orleans, The GOP moves past Katrina”
I married a goddamn musician. Ain’t no way to make that shit right.
— Ladonna (Khandi Alexander)
It’s been three months since Katrina. Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) still hasn’t heard from her brother David, who may or may not have been incarcerated when the storm hit. Official records are lost. Some folks who know him assume he’s run off. “Lotta people missing,” says a cop. “Lotta people wanna be missing.” But Ladonna worries. “I think he dead,” she says, her voice low and thin. “All this time and that boy ain’t called?”
At the start of Treme, Ladonna’s unsure what to do. She runs a bar — the one her daddy left her — in Central City. Like too many businesses in the neighborhood, it’s in trouble, but she feels committed, even though her husband Larry (Lance E. Nichols) has moved her son Alcide (Renwick D. Scott II) up to Baton Rouge, where Larry’s relocated his law practice; he’s urging her to sell and move on. But Ladonna’s got complications, namely, her mother won’t leave New Orleans. “She never been anyplace else,” not even to Baton Rouge, she explains to an astonished Alcide.
This scant but already potent backstory indicates how Treme works. As Ladonna and Larry peer at each over the dinner table, Alcide — her son with Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a trombonist back in New Orleans — embodies a generation now forever shaped by the storm and its notorious “aftermath.” Bright and polite, Alcide is also disappointed, and reminded daily that adults know what they’re doing. If his new life Baton Rouge isn’t what he expected, it’s the one he has, and for now, at least, the past doesn’t seem so precious, so worth preserving, as his mother insists.
That’s not to say Ladonna doesn’t have support. Toni (Melissa Leo), a lawyer known for suing the local PD, assures her she’ll find out what happened. Her investigation suggests David was at OPP (Orleans Parish Prison) during the flood. When the cops don’t have straight answers, she starts looking at photos — those thousands taken by news agencies during Katrina, many uploaded and now hanging in the digital ether, documents of crowds and calamities that no one has had time or inclination to organize or understand. Near the end of Treme‘s first episode, “Do You Know What It Means,” Toni finds David’s face in an image, one among many young men in orange jumpsuits. When she delivers the news to Ladonna, the two women smile at each other, their eyes wet and wide as they guess at what it means. “Where he at?” Ladonna asks. Toni sighs, “I don’t know,” as a helicopter whap-whaps overhead and offscreen.
This chopper noise is one of those details that Treme gets so exactly right. New Orleans remains unsettled after the storm, everyone feeling simultaneously surveilled and abandoned, always uneasy. Toni’s husband, Tulane English professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), voices his rage and distress to whoever will listen. Introduced as he’s instructing a TV reporter (“The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe,” he pronounces, “It was decades in the making”). When the reporter provokes him, wondering aloud why the “nation” should pay for local rebuilding, Creighton gathers and launches, his 11ish daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) ready to be entertained. “You go, daddy,” she whispers to herself as he grabs up the crew’s camera and tosses it into the canal.
Sofia, like Alcide, is suffering her own post-Katrina fallout. She’s unhappy with the school she’s attending in Baton Rouge (“I hate it more than words can say,” she complains, “The girls are not nice,” blaming her newly acquired foul language on “Catholic school”). But Sofie’s bothered by her route back to school in New Orleans. When Creighton explains that a public school will be refitted for charter students, like her, Sofia exclaims, “That’s not fair!” That’s right, her dad nods, and that’s how she’ll be able to go to school in New Orleans.
Sofie’s consternation reflects a general worry about how politics and money are changing New Orleans after the storm. While individuals deal with lost property and argue with insurance companies, neighborhoods are in flux, prey to corporate schemes and losing hold of traditions. In an effort to reclaim at least a feeling of Congo Square, were his station used to be, a radio DJ named Davis (Steve Zahn) is surprised but goes along when his guest, Ascension Parish’s own Coco Robicheaux, proceeds to sacrifice a chicken on air. Davis is less surprised when he’s fired for the stunt (or, as he explains to his disapproving parents, his “situation becomes untenable”), but he can’t quite settle into his new gig as a hotel clerk. Though he’s instructed never to send guests in search of “real” New Orleans beyond the “safe” couple of blocks surrounding the hotel, Davis can’t help himself: when a crew of kids from a church group ask where to go for music, he sends them to Bourbon Street.
Here they run into Antoine, who helps them sort through a few cubs and lots of liquor. For his part, Antoine insists he’s only working Bourbon Street while he’s looking for a job — because “There’s a difference between job and a gig,” as his girlfriend Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) reminds him, but each night brings its own adventures if you’re a musician in New Orleans. And there are plenty of those in Treme, from real-life artists like Kermit Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, and Elvis Costello to characters negotiating traditions and careers.
Trumpet player Delmond (Rob Brown) is busy in New York when his sister Davina (Edwina Findley) calls, worried about their dad, house-builder and longtime Ninth Ward Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters). Albert’s as determined to revive the tribe as he is to rebuild his broken, moldy-walled home, and Davina’s tired of being responsible while her brother’s on the road. “I’ve got gigs,” he says, by way of excusing himself. “We all got gigs, Delmond,” she schools him. “Life is a goddamn gig.”
As angry as Davina may be when she makes this pronouncement, it serves as something of a theme for Treme, a description of the temporary and lifelong passions that hold lives together in the face of devastations small and large. As Davis campaigns to preserve the “real” music, or his sometime girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens), a chef, struggles to keep her restaurant afloat, as Antoine tires to get by and over, and as Ladonna seeks the truth about her brother, Treme sketches and interweaves stories and desires, hopes and disenchantments.
Music shapes all in Treme, experiences as well as ideas and themes. When Delmond contributes to a recording session, the camera cuts back and forth between the booth and the musicians, the soundtrack bouncing from what each artist hears in his headphones to the combinations the engineers are manipulating. Brief, sinuous, and resonant, the scene is a terrific evocation of how music — or art or life — is made and understood, at once elegant and precise, fragmented and thrilling.