Decades ago, I’d heard that Eric Overmeyer and the wonderful actress Ellen McElduff had begun living part-time in her native Louisiana. This is obviously well before Katrina, but even then, New Orleans was in need of support. Cajun culture was having its brief moment in the sun, but the city and state were already in severe economic distress. The kind of contemporary work Eric and Ellen were doing in the theatre was, to put it mildly, absent. (I haven’t seen either in years, but I’ve long been an admirer of both of their work and have had passing acquaintance with them.)
Overmeyer — who gets this season’s only sole credit on this week’s episode of “Treme” — is the co-creator of the series but has understandably been treated as the secondary figure in the partnership with David Simon.
His contribution, however, should not be underestimated. Overmeyer writes about New Orleans with the authenticity that Simon brought to Baltimore. Specificity of place has long been a hallmark of HBO series. But what “Treme” has is a deep specificity of culture.
This is why music is not an add-on. In a city with no governance, culture is what sustains. It’s a music deeply rooted in tradition (another thematic issue which I’ll discuss as the season progresses) and cuts across racial and class lines.
There are two characters who return to the city in this season. One is the modern jazz musician, Delmond Lambreaux, whose story is about forging an alliance between his internationalist jazz present and his parochial roots. The other is chef Janette Desautel, who begins this season working for David Chang in New York. (With Chang, Anthony Bourdain, and Emeril Lagasse involved in the series, the kitchen scenes have a remarkable ring of truth. Making drama about food is not easy: for one thing, smell can only be portrayed indirectly. And while talent can be demonstrated, it cannot be acted. There’s a reason that Antoine Batiste commits to teaching this season; Wendell Pierce can act up a storm, but he cannot play at the level of the show’s musicians. We can hear the quality of the music on screen. It’s only the absolute authenticity of the restaurant scenes that allows us to believe that Desautel is truly a great cook.)
Culture draws Desautel back to New Orleans as surely as it does Delmond. She’s wooed twice in the first two episodes — and chooses the wrong partner. (She’s great at judging dishes and kitchen workers; not so great at judging men when partnership – business or culinary – is concerned.)
Most of the musicians in show are looking backwards. (There’s an extended sequence in this episode and others in which Batiste introduces his students to the ultra-traditional Preservation Hall; as a result of his fusion record with his father, Delmond and Albert are wooed by financiers for a tourist-oriented museum of jazz.)
The cooking portrayed on screen is modernist, far more cosmopolitan than anything else in the series. Like the three real chefs, Desautel is high-end. Her kitchen may be racially mixed but her product is very much for the upper-class (unlike the music, which is for everyone). But while it is forward-thinking, it’s also something that draws from the city’s particular culture and resources. (Later in the season, she gives a wonderful rant against frozen crayfish; seasons are seasons in her world. In yet another story line, we see those crayfish being harvested by Vietnamese fishermen, a story about how cultures are absorbed and occupations replenished.)
That forward-looking food is essential. It’s an essential part of the culture, and it’s aimed at the future. Desautel’s battle is to keep the city from becoming a museum. Among the devastation, her story is about culture as a living, changing, force.
It’s a tough, ambiguous, but, in the end, hopeful story, one that is as central to the series as the stories of despair.