Saturday, May 8, 2010

Down In the Treme: Episodes 1-4

tremePNG Treme is a show about New Orleans. It’s a show about a no-luck trombone player; a bitter English professor; a prodigal son; a relentless parade chief; a penny-broke pair of musicians. Treme is about one of America’s greatest cities rising from the dregs of a catastrophic flood, grappling with tragedy, identity and an uncertain future. Created by David Simon, the man behind The Wire, it may be this year’s best new show. Hit the jump and find out why.

Jordan: If there's one thing Treme has taught me, it's that I'm not cool enough to watch Treme.

Rob: But we were cool enough to watch David Simon's last HBO series, The Wire, right? How does "Treme" stack up against its predecessor?

Jordan: Lawdy, lawdy, that's a tough call. As far as comparisons to The Wire go, I'd probably bring up the fourth season. Before we start talking about quality, even.

Rob: Say someone didn't know what you were talking about when you say fourth-season Wire.

Jordan: Unlike the other seasons, the fourth wasn't tied together by an ongoing investigation that served as the story arc. It was the aggregation of individual stories. Treme, which knows that New Orleans' story is simply the sum of its citizens' stories, takes the same approach.

Rob: Indeed. But season four of The Wire lets you get deep in the nitty-gritty. Though we see the characters of Treme at their most intimate, I feel there's an in-crowd aspect to the entire show. When John Goodman's character, disgruntled English professor Creighton Bernette, tells the pundits on YouTube they don't fucking know shit about New Orleans, I feel like he's talking to me. And I feel that's a big part of the show's authenticity.

Jordan: It can be a tad annoying, though. Like listening to a bunch of fucking hipsters, who have admittedly good taste in music, implying that you're not as cool as them.

Rob: You get that vibe?

Jordan: I might just be splitting hairs.

Rob: Maybe I just like being talked down to.

Jordan: You always did like being a gimp. The thing that's bothersome, to me, is that a TV show dramatizing an authentic community is inherently less authentic than the community it's dramatizing. Plus, David Simon's not even from NOLA! How can a dude who himself is a tourist critique me for being one?

Rob: That's a good question. But for the vast majority of the country who isn't from New Orleans, I think Treme will carry a very powerful message indeed. In this case, do the ends justify the means?

Jordan: It doesn't need the slightly insecure "real NOLA" crap to cut deep. Then again, I think the show sees Steve Zahn's character as a real douchebag. And he's the one most guilty of this kind of behavior.

Rob: God, but I love Davis McAlary. He does the trust-fund hipster thing so very well. That said, it's supremely hard to pick a favorite performance from this show thus far. Everyone's brought their A-game.

Jordan: Good God, yes. Nandi Alexander is killer, Wendell Peirce is David Simon's next great fuckup, and John Goodman's "Walter Sobchak as College Professor" is one for the ages. But I've gotta give it to Clarke Peter's Albert Lambreaux. That guy can do more with a grimace than most people can with a soliloquy.

Rob: He's a poem on legs. I've never seen someone do more with their face. Dude looks like he was there for Katrina.

Jordan: Whaddya think of the musician couple? I would do terrible things to that fiddler.

Rob: I would just kiss her feet and cry. She's just too pretty. Her piano-player boyfriend is going to get himself in trouble, though. You don't drink your girlfriend's birthday wine - especially when you're forced to pay for said $20 bottle with spare change.

Jordan: Yeah, that's a train wreck in slow motion.

Rob: David Simon is good at those.

Jordan: I especially like his willingness to let his characters not change. Wendell Peirce's Antoine Batiste is a sweet fuckup now, and he'll probably end the show the same way.

Rob: But Treme has moments of quiet and beautiful victory. Like in episode one, when Lambreaux struts down the nighttime streets in his parade livery?

Jordan: Oh, no doubt! I was gonna mention how the whole thing's like a happy response to the unmerciful realism of The Wire. Remember that moment in the last episode where the woman asks Antoine if he's going to New Orleans for "business or pleasure?"

Rob: Pleasure. Always pleasure. In case you missed it, that's a reference to the end of the second season of The Wire, when a fleeing drug supplier tells a ticket agent at the airport that his trip is about "business. Always business." But the show's got unmerciful realism in spades. Lambreaux finds a rotted body under a johnboat. The show has the general feel of a deep-south funeral - joy and sadness don't just coexist, they dance in streets. Loudly. To raucuous fucking horn music. Like at the beginning of episode four, when Baptiste is in waiting-room purgatory. The trombone player starts belting out a tune about his misery. And guess what? Somebody joins in, using a trashcan for the drums.

Jordan: Oh, and we haven't even talked about the musical numbers! There are so many of them, and they're all great.

Rob: The music's incredible, for sure.

Jordan: Yeah, but not just the music, you know? Because David Simon's always had great music. But it's harder to have an organic-feeling show with organic-feeling musical numbers. In unsteady hands, that shit could've gone down in flames. But the performances, even the spontaneous ones, never feel forced or gimmicky. They just flow out of the scenery, like music should.

Rob: Honestly? I have no clue where Simon is taking us. And I honestly don't care.

Jordan: Yeah, I'm happy to just live with these people.I was thinking about it, and it's not even that I'd take the heartache with all the joy. I'd let these people teach me how joy and heartache are two sides of the same coin. Because they know how to celebrate life rather than just mourn death.

Rob: Amen.