A good cop and a not so good cop come into a coffee shop. The girl behind the counter happens to be the daughter of a defense lawyer, re-introduces herself to the good cop, and tells him his order is on the house.
Do you call that corruption?
It’s a question that hangs in the air of the third episode of this season’s “Treme,” written by master hard-boiled Washington, DC, novelist George Pelecanos (upped this year to Executive Producer status), a question that will turn very ugly as the season progresses.
The episode begins with a blatant act of police brutality that serves as the inciting incident for the season’s major overarching story and ends as an out-of-town journalist L.P. Everett (Chris Coy), a fictionalized A.C. Thompson, finds the burnt-out car of a man murdered by NOPD police during Katrina.
The brutality at the start of the episode is not racist — the cop is black, as is his victim. NOPD’s violence and corruption was legendary long before the storm hit — it’s the thing tourists never want to see or know about (and the rocks on which many a prior New Orleans show has floundered; pre-Katrina, networks wanted bon-temps shows, not ones about dangerous, dark underbellies).
Pelecanos in this episode — and all of the writers in subsequent episodes — handle this police story with all of the complexity it deserves. The unaccountability of the department taints everyone, even David Morse’s Terry Colson, the good cop to whom Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo)’s daughter, Sofia (India Ennenga), gives that free coffee.
That lack of accountability is an evil unto itself, and its price (as played out in later episodes) spreads far beyond its immediate victims. I’ll deal with the scrupulous manner in which Treme balances its treatment of police later in the season; suffice it to say that it is no accident that Pelecanos sets the on-screen beating outside Gigi’s, the bar run by resolute (and perhaps foolhearty) La Donna (Khandi Alexander, another flawless female cast member), who was raped last season.
But Pelecanos, Simon, and Overmeyer are not merely telling a story about police misconduct, one that could be told in any city. The difference in New Orleans is that with no functional government, there is nowhere to turn to redress police misconduct.
Toni tries. She goes after the brutal Billy Wilson (Lucky Johnson) by placing an ad in the newspaper asking for witnesses to his repeated acts of violence, a gesture that will bring a world of harm upon her daughter. Terry Colson tries as well.
But without any checks and balances — when the government is so craven that it will “remediate” a house one day and tear it down the next — the city has turned into a police state. And by telling this horrifying story involving Toni’s daughter, the writers make clear that it is not only the minority population at risk.
This is the darkest story of New Orleans after the flood, one that, as reporter Everett soon discovers, no one wants to discuss.
After Simon skewered his former bosses at the Baltimore Sun in the last season of “The Wire,” journalists have been largely absent from “Treme.” The heroism and subsequent dismantling of the Times-Picayune has gone unmentioned. Everett is a journlist from out of town, writing (as the real Thompson did) for Pro Publica and The Nation.
Unspoken but present underneath this plot line is a warning: shrink government, and power will reside with those who abuse it.
Watching “Treme,” I could not help remembering that the first time I was aware of Melissa Leo was when she played Kay Howard on “Homicide.” It was one of those great melds of character and actress where Leo seemed to inspire the writers to deepen Howard’s character that in turn evoked an even better performance week after week. NBC, alas, was in the vise-like grip of its obsession with pretty blonds. Leo was fired and replaced but never forgotten.
I bring this up because I tried, really tried, to watch “Revolution.” I couldn’t get past the fact that in this new show — set in a post-electrical apocalypse in which all motors have failed — every woman had perfect hair and unlimited lipstick choices. NBC is the network that will never learn.