“Don’t ever change.”
–Terry Colson (David Morse)
I have never successfully convinced someone to watch “Treme,” which started its new season on HBO this past Sunday, who wasn’t already a fan. This might say more about my inability to condense any film or TV show I love into an appealing elevator than the series itself, but “Treme” has from the beginning defied easy descriptions and hooks. Like co-creator David Simon’s best known series “The Wire,” “Treme” is about a place more than it is about any one character or main story — but unlike that crime drama, it doesn’t start with something as surface approachable as the drug trade and the cops trying to stop it. “The Wire” slowly broadened from a (granted, gritty and complex) story of law and order to one about Baltimore as a larger community and how its systems fail the individuals within them. But “Treme” starts there at the broad view, with its ragtag crew of musicians and chefs, newcomers and locals, lawyers and DJs all trying to get their lives back together after a storm destroyed so much of the city they love.
It’s no wonder that the show’s one you have to put some time into, especially after a first season that could lean toward the didactic — most notably in its scenes with John Goodman’s Tulane professor-turned-rageful-vlogger Creighton Bernette, whose anger about the state of the clean-up efforts were revealed to be a symptom of a much deeper despair. But as “Treme” has continued into what’s its third year, its become warmer and more rueful, its acceptance of its own idiosyncracies part of its charm.
New Orleans may have been righteously screwed over both by and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but as the series has shifted away from one that baldly engages in the many ways the government has fallen short and instead has been weaving those details into the larger lives being lived by its characters, it’s become richer, funnier and more nuanced. The “Treme” ensemble is made up of some marvelously imperfect, distinctive people, and the fondness with which the show takes them in is its greatest quality.
Last season in particular, “Treme” engaged in the idea of authenticity, and the ways in which it becomes a major signifier for belonging in the city but also something that can hold the characters back and become self-applied restrictions, a refusal to adapt or change. The process of recording that fusion jazz/Indian record that Delmond (Rob Brown) does with his father Albert (Clarke Peters), for instance, is all about that push and pull, with Delmond’s desire to both help his father and have more people hear that sound butting up against his dad’s insistence on doing everything exactly as he sees fit.
And the way things are done isn’t always the way everyone would agree they should be, as seen in last season’s finale when Toni (Melissa Leo) goes to seek advice from her old mentor Judge Prieur (Patrick Collins), who turns out to be in jail but still genially helps her out. In Sunday’s premiere, we had another visit to a corrupt official now behind bars when Nelson (Jon Seda) went to visit his old partner in crime Oliver Thomas. Former city council member Thomas, playing himself on “Treme,” also refused to cooperate in real life when he was charged with bribery and was sentenced accordingly. The show portrays his fate with a curious dignity, as he admits he did was he was charged with but that he wouldn’t inform on anyone else: “I just didn’t want to play the game anymore… As for whoever did what else, that’s between them and their conscience.”
Authenticity and belonging is a blessing and a burden, and in last night’s messy, joyous and tart episode “Knock with Me – Rock with Me” (directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by David Simon with story help from Anthony Bourdain), we’re shown the way it’s tested, the way the characters’ ties to New Orleans are prodded at by the work that’s required to stay there and by what’s on offer elsewhere in the world. Janette (Kim Dickens) gets preemptively wooed into sticking around New York by David Chang (once again playing himself) with a ridiculous chefs-only dinner in which they dine on Lièvre à la Royale and drink rare wines.
Davis’ (Steve Zahn) “musical heritage tour” is filled with sights that are unseeable, either because they haven’t been restored or because they were never preserved in the first place, a fact that he’s much more accepting of than his paying guests. And Terry (Morse) heads up to Indianaoplis, where his kids are living with his ex-wife, who chides him about not belonging in a city of “dreamers and drunks” and suggests she doesn’t want the children visiting him when he’s living in a trailer she fears is unsafe. But while he wouldn’t describe himself as either a dreamer or a drunk, Terry loves the city and because of it toils away in a police department rife with hostility and cover-ups, making things quietly better.
The weight of the appreciation “Treme” has for noble Terry, for tireless Davis, for proud Albert and talented Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and unbowed LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), both defines the show and makes it a thrill for those who can get onto its wavelength to watch. “Treme” will never be a show that puts story foremost, and some people will never be able to stand it for the way it meanders, unhurried, between its characters. But it’s the people that make up a city, not the sights within it, and the love “Treme” has for the people it portrays is matched only by the undercurrent of urgency that they might not all come back, that New Orleans will have lost something to the flood that it might never get back — not a landmark, but a fraction of the population that provided its unique cultural identity. As “Treme” rounds the 10 episodes that will make up this season and prepares for a shortened final arc to close its story out, it will be interesting to see if the show channels all the fondness it has for the city at its heart into something hopeful for the future.