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HBO’s ‘Treme’ returns for season 2

As we return to the post-Katrina New Orleans of “Treme” for the start of season two (Sunday night at 10 on HBO), things are in many ways much better for the musicians, chefs and other locals we met in the drama’s first season.

Itinerant trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) decides the time is right to form and front his own band, while his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) coincidentally decides to expand her bar’s business by adding live music. Trouble-making DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) tries to start a record label to promote his love of the city’s bounce music, while his violinist friend Annie (Lucia Micarelli) finally starts establishing herself in the local music scene. Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) gets to work patching up the home that was destroyed in the storm, while his trumpet-playing son Delmond (Rob Brown) sets out to reinvent his sound and, in the process, reconnect with his New Orleans roots.

Most of these characters have moved past mere survival now. Their lives have found some level of post-Katrina equilibrium, and now they’re all looking to build something. It’s an attitude exemplified by one of this season’s two new characters, Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a carpetbagger from Texas looking to get rich by helping to reconstruct the devastated city.

But even as many of the people of “Treme” are doing much better than when last we saw them, the city itself – only 14 months removed from the storm – is in more dire straits than ever. At this point in time, people have returned to New Orleans, but so has crime, at a rate and volume that’s far more than the city’s police force – represented by the show’s other new regular character, Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse) – can handle. Half the city is on anti-depressants, and there’s a sense the other half probably would be if they had a minute to pause and recognize how they’re really feeling.

That mix of ambition and indecision, of construction and devastation, provides the backdrop for a second season that’s unlikely to change the series’ reputation as The Wonderful Show Where Very Little Happens, but only because change to the show seems to only come as incrementally as it does to the city.

“Treme” was co-created (with Eric Overmyer) by David Simon, whose last HBO series was the densely-plotted great American novel for television “The Wire.” So the new show’s focus on atmosphere over story, on small character beats over big developments, has been a tough transition for some viewers, even the ones ready to follow Simon and fellow “Wire” alums Pierce and Peters anywhere thanks to their work on The Best Show Ever.

I understand the reluctance to embrace the laid-back aesthetic of “Treme,” even though I don’t share it. But I will say this: in season two, the strengths of “Treme” remain strengths, while some of the show’s weaknesses have been much improved.

First, the stuff that worked before and continues to do so: The atmosphere, sense of place and absolute love of that place are all second to none on television. As a love letter to the city of New Orleans, to its culture and food and (especially) its music, “Treme” was, is and will likely continue to be fantastic. And the performances remain among the best you’ll find. Alexander and newly-minted Oscar winner Melissa Leo continue to shine as a pair of strong women still grieving over the loss of, respectively, a brother and a husband. Pierce is still a superhuman reservoir of charm, Kim Dickens (as Janette Desautel, a chef who has fled to New York after the post-storm failure of her restaurant) still so touching and vulnerable (and this year has material largely written by celebrity chef/foodie Anthony Bourdain), and Morse (who appeared briefly last season) such a natural fit as a wise but weary veteran cop with no idea how to keep his district together, nevermind the city.

And, hell, the music alone (with the actors, other than professional violinist Micarelli, largely faking it while working alongside real-life fixtures of the New Orleans music scene) is often worth the time investment. Regardless of the style – traditional jazz, bounce, funk, classical and everything in between – the musical numbers are done with so much joy that it doesn’t matter if they’re only sometimes informative of character or plot.

As for the areas that were more problematic a year ago, the new season definitely feels like it has more forward momentum. It takes a while to get there – I’ve seen 5 episodes, and had a conversation with a friend who had only seen 3 and felt like the pace was just as ambling as before – but after a while there’s a much clearer sense that there are stories being told here beyond “character X tries to pay the bills and hold onto their sanity,” and that many of the stories tie together in a way they didn’t before.

The simple fact that Batiste – the closest the ensemble show has to a lead character – has a storyline at all this year, as opposed to what was essentially an ongoing situation last season, is a huge step forward in that area. Characters seemingly cross paths more frequently than before, and even as Delmond and Janette spend much of the early episodes off in New York, an effort is made to keep them tied to life in New Orleans.

And some of the new character combinations feel more promising than what was there before. Last season, Annie was dating Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a bitter junkie resentful of her greater talent and determined to hold her down at his level. Being paired instead with Zahn’s goofball Davis brings out more of Micarelli’s inherent sunniness. And once Sonny is no longer a weight at the ankle of Annie and has only to deal with the limitations of his talent in a city with no shortage of better musicians, he becomes a much more interesting and, dare I say it, sympathetic figure.

There are still frayed edges that haven’t quite been dealt with. Where the Baltimore of “The Wire” was filled entirely with fictional characters and events – even if many of them were heavily-drawn from real ones – “Treme” has an at times awkward mix of the fictional and the real. Lt. Colson, for instance, spends a lot of time discussing real-life New Orleans PD scandals that are in his recent past but took place 5 or 6 years ago for us, and those scenes never quite feel connected to the lives of the show’s characters.

Leo’s crusading lawyer Toni Burnette again has to play private detective to find out what happened to a young man who died in the storm’s aftermath, but where last year that quest had a personal stake for the audience because the man in question was LaDonna’s brother, here it’s the son of a new character we meet briefly and don’t see again. (Leo gets much better material in showing how Toni and daughter Sofia, well-played by India Ennenga, are coping with the aftermath of her husband’s suicide.)

And while the show takes a fairly nuanced approach to Nelson Hidalgo – he could easily come across as a caricatured opportunist, but instead is written and played as a guy who wants to make a buck but also seems to genuinely fall in love with his adopted new city – Seda is still largely off in his own show for most of the 5 episodes I’ve seen. He represents the theme of building, but I’m hopeful he gets more integrated with the other regulars before the season’s out.

Still, the great vastly outweighs the problematic from where I sit, and the small detail work remains wonderful. The first 5 episodes are packed with great moments, not only for the main characters, but for the people of the city as a whole. Antoine winds up with a music teaching job to help pay the bills, and during one class, the kids are thrown into an utter, understandable panic when a rainstorm gets a little too intense. A later episode features a funeral for a local jazz man attended by what seems like every player in the city; as the man’s coffin is being loaded onto the horse-drawn hearse, we see a beautiful tableau of every musician holding his or her instrument aloft as a show of respect.

Even with slight tweaks and an upward narrative trajectory, “Treme” is never going to be a mass-appeal hit – is unlikely, in fact, to even become a fiercely-cherished cult item like “The Wire” was. But I don’t think Simon, Overmyer or anyone else involved has any illusions of broad success with this project. Like so many of the characters on the show, if they wanted to hit it big, they’d be doing something else; they do this out of a deep, unbreakable love for this city and its traditions.

Or, as an incredulous Delmond says when an interviewer asks him how his new album is selling, “‘Selling’? It’s jazz, man.”

By Alan Sepinwall

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