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By Randal Stevens · May 3, 2010
For those of you who didn’t read Part 1 (why the hell not? Jerk…), this is the second half of a mini-series in which I break down why David Simon is too brilliant to be allowed to live. In Part 1, I focused on his non-fiction novel, “Homcide: A Year on the Killing Streets” upon which the Emmy Award-winning TV series, “Homicide: Life on the Street,” was based and for which Simon wrote 122 episodes. Here, I’ll be focusing on his latest foray into TV, Treme, which focuses on a motley series of people trying to rebuild their lives in post-Katrina New Orleans and was picked up for a second season on HBO after only one episode. In order to make it seem as though there’s something to prove, I’ve left The Wire out of the equation because you don’t bring an M-16 to a fist fight.
Some readers may not think it fair that I cite an entire TV show as evidence seeing as unlike feature films or novels, a TV show is given a comparatively endless amount of time for its story to unfold, develop, change and affect an audience; after all, most shows don’t really catch on popularly and critically until after its first season. It’s a valid argument, so I’ll strictly limit the argument to Treme‘s pilot episode, “Do You Know What It Means.”
To begin with, pay close attention to the opening credit sequence where what we see are photos of New Orleans cultured hanging on badly water damaged walls, but what we hear is one of the catchiest show openers in the form of an infectious jazz jingle. Set against the visual backdrop of destruction ring out these lyrics:
“Down in the Treme
It’s me and my baby.
We’re all goin’ crazy
But jumpin’ and havin’ fun.“
This contrast of destruction and celebration is a beautiful contradiction, paving the way for a pilot and subsequent series that would paint the culture and its struggle as neither black nor white, but a healthy mixture of both. Continuing this theme, the show opens not with mourning, but with celebration. Three months after Katrina, the residents of New Orleans are not feeling sorry for themselves, but aching for a reason to get back to the way they were. As Albert Labreaux (Clarke Peters), a Mardi Gras chief, sits anxiously in the passenger side of his daughter’s car as she drives him back into the heart of the 9th Ward after an emergency exile, other inhabitants of the city and cast members such as Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), an occasionally-employed jazz trombonist, and Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), an audiophile disc-jockey, join in the first second-line parade since the hurricane struck. Residents who have recently returned gel with those who never left, playing instruments, dancing, and missing those musicians and neighbors who have yet to return. The parade is a fantastic device used to introduce viewers to the characters whose lives will be on display as well as the culture they desperately love.
Soon enough, we’re acclimated to the main characters, how they’ve been effected by the flood, and the nuts and bolts that make them tick. For instance, though Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) lives away from the disaster area, he’s still making passionate pleas to ignorant journalists about why the world should care about the destruction of its great cities such as New Orleans. Though his bar has been destroyed and many of his friends have not yet returned, Labreaux insists he won’t give up on trying to get his life back together – “Won’t bow. Don’t know how” he declares. Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), Antoine’s ex-wife, refuses to sell her under-patronized bar and attempts to find her brother, who was in jail at the time of the flood. Each character has their own motivations, eccentricities, strengths and flaws and without going into unnecessary exposition and preachy speeches, these characters define their loyalties and their ongoing quests more clearly than 9 out of 10 feature films out there.
But it’s the New Orleans culture, which is the source of the entire show, that is Treme‘s primary focus and character. The show opens with a parade, closes with a parade and in between, takes every excuse it can to slip in musical numbers. They’re not forced and they don’t draw attention to themselves, but they are undoubtedly highlights, allowing the city’s homegrown talent to flex their muscles and constructing the groundwork for the mood and attitudes of the city’s inhabitants. Jazz has always had mournful undertones, but there’s also a current of pride and jubilation in knowing that there is no other culture on earth like theirs. Even in the face of tragedy after being practically ignored by their government, the citizens of New Orleans find comfort and hope in each other.
The episode wraps up with funeral procession for a dearly departed musician. Antoine, showing up late to a gig yet again, greets his companions and yells out, “Play for that money, boys. Play for that money.” Is there loyalty and honor in this culture? Yes. But there’s also a livelihoods, people trying to survive, and using their music and their company to do so. As the procession slowly and rhythmically marches along, the screen slowly fades to black. Ending as it began, the episode tells us that this is how it is and this is how it’s going to be. “Fuck the hurricane,” the episode says, “we’re going to be who we are no matter what.”