Monday, April 25, 2011

"Treme" - lous thoughts

I didn't watch the first season of "Treme" on HBO last year, but my family did, and they kept nagging and nagging me, telling me how great it was and how much I would love it until, as the second season of the show was looming, I gave in and took to HBO On Demand and watched all ten episodes of the first season in just a few days. All things considered, I think I was smart to view it this way.

I'm not really much of a television junkie and I can't claim to have watched other David Simon series like "The Wire" or "Homicide" so I came to "Treme" as a Simon-virgin, so to speak. Having now watched the first season and the first episode of the second season, I might want to go back and look at some of his earlier work. "The Wire" springs immediately to mind.

For the uninitiated, "Treme" is set in New Orleans. The first season's episodes begin three to four months after Katrina. The city is in ruins. So are the people, but life goes on and they must try to cope. Many thousands of people who were evacuated have not been able to return home and their absence leaves a large tear in the fabric of society.

The series takes a very novelistic approach to story-telling. It is slow-moving and events are seen from the perspectives of many different unrelated characters - unrelated except that they are all New Orleanians and they've all been through hell and are trying to get back. There's "Big Chief" Albert Lambeaux who evacuated but had his daughter drive him back from Houston as soon as possible after the storm. He finds his home in ruins and sets about renovating a deserted neighborhood bar that is less seriously damaged. There's the crazy NPR DJ, Davis, who rode out the storm in New Orleans and who seems incapable of planning more than five minutes into the future. He lives for the moments. There's Toni, the lawyer, who is obsessed with righting wrongs and finding some justice for her clients who are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. There's her husband, Creighton, the Tulane professor of literature. There's the chef, Janette, struggling to keep her restaurant going in an impossible situation. There's the strung-out druggie street musician, Sonny, and his lovely violin-playing girlfriend. (And, what, please tell me, did she ever see in him?) And, of course, there is Antoine, the trombone-player and his several connections - women, children, second husband of his ex-wife and all the players with whom he does gigs. There are many other charcters, as well, but this is just a sampling of some of the main characters through whose eyes we see this city.

All of the characters in the show are seriously depressed, as who wouldn't be in their situation? But it's how they deal with that depression that really makes this series mesmerizing. New Orleans is all about food, music, and fun, not necessarily in that order, and those are the tools that many of the characters use to try to dig out of their living graves. Janette, the chef, concentrates on the food to the exclusion of everything else. Antoine has family responsibilities and can't concentrate totally on the music, but he comes as close as is possible. For Davis, the DJ, life is one long party, the denial of anything serious or morbid. For the more grown-up rounded characters like Toni, the lawyer, they, too, find some relief in food, music, and dreams of carnival.

It's impossible to sum up this series briefly. It is too nuanced, many-layered, and subtle in its stories of ordinary people trying to push that stone up a hill every day only to have it roll back down every night. It just needs to be watched and savored from the beginning.

While it is very, very good, it is not a perfect series and there are two things about it, in particular, that I found off-putting. One is the constant stream of celebrity cameos. Can I just say, "Why?" It seems to me that the stories could stand on their own and would be stronger without this disconcerting parade.

My second quibble is with the character of Creighton, played by the excellent John Goodman. The character just didn't ring true to me. I know he was seriously depressed, more seriously than his family realized, but his depression just seems so...self-centered, egoistic even. His anguish over New Orleans seems to be mostly anguish that his dream of New Orleans has been disrupted. Even to the last, he never seems able to get beyond his iconic and obscene YouTube rants so that he can move on to some productive focusing of his depression on the problems at hand. Perhaps, in this context, it is not so surprising that he would leave his beloved wife and daughter in the lurch to pick up the pieces.

But, then, maybe that is what depression is: The inability to look past oneself, or to see behind the black cloud to the sun shining just on the other side.

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