Sunday night's episode started the final mini-season to wrap up the series by echoing scenes from previous seasons.
[Spoiler Alert] Treme returned Sunday night for its final semi-season, one thing I admired about the most recent episode is that David Simon and Eric Overmyer are sticking to their guns at every level. The show's very specific pacing continues as if they've got another season or two instead of a final five episodes. Some scenes seem to casually set up stories that will be hard to wrap up, while others are more about the moment than any story. The New Orleans in Treme is their New Orleans - one based on the real city starting in late 2005, but one that also bends to their whims at key moments. It produces some forced moments - Terry Colson's (David Morse) offhanded ripping on Greg Meffert, as if a cop would have a reason to know who he is or how does his job - but it also produces sweet, poetic moments that could have happened - and if they didn't, there are a thoussand comparable ones that really did.
More than the live music, the signature feature of Treme is the way scenes echo scenes. Season four started with Davis (Steve Zahn) admiring the crater-like pothole he has wrecked his car in, bringing to mind a scene in season two (I think) when he was similarly stranded with a flat. The first scene illustrated how out of control New Orleans was; this time, the scene is more tightly focused on a city government that allows such potholes to happen. Davis makes the moment into folk art, but the reality of the road used in the shot doesn’t do justice to some of the holes that really existed. One outside The Kingpin at this time was deep and wide enough to house most of a shopping cart lying handle-side down.
Davis mooches a bottle of Janette’s (Kim Dickens) best wine in the series pilot from her restaurant. He brings her a case of wine for her new restaurant in the season four premiere, suggesting some development in his character. Similarly, he made a production of blasting his neighbors when he wanted to listen to music when the series began. In this week’s episode, he sits in the car listening to Trombone Shorty because he’s too into the CD to move.
Throughout the series, characters play scenes that look like other scenes they’ve played, which likely contributes to the sense that nothing ever happens in the show. Still, those scenes mirror the way our lives move through repetitive situations and the spaces, and the ways things stay the same and change both speak about us and the different stages of our lives. When we see another Indian practice on the show, we’re looking for the differences as well as the similarities. Lambreaux’s intensity suggests that he (Clark Peters) is healthier than he was last time we saw him, and the half-hearted participation of Delmond (Rob Brown) says something different’s up with him as well.
Trombone Shorty looms large in this episode, which fudges a little by moving a demo of music from 2010’s Backatown into 2008. Still, he serves two purposes in the night’s drama beyond a killer performance. He helps make Davis’ point to Nelson (Jon Seda) about the neighborhoods and streets being the home of New Orleans music, and he contrasts with Annie (Lucia Micarelli). Each play to crowded, celebratory audiences, but Shorty’s sequence finishes with him as a conquering hero while Annie’s ends with uncertainty as her manager Marvin (Michael Cerveris) lets her know that the music she’s making doesn’t do anything north of Louisiana. It is the most truthful moment in Annie’s story throughout the run of the show, and I hope the writers fast-forwarded her story the whole way to get to the moment when she has to think about her definition of success. Throughout, she’s led a professionally charmed life and hasn’t seriously questioned her artistic choices because she hasn’t had to. Marvin wants her to ditch the band, go to Nashville and cut an album there, while she likes her band and the music they’re making.
There’s a lot of truth in what Marvin says. There is a circuit around the country that is open to Louisiana music, and Jazz Fest, WWOZ and tourism have helped create a national audience for the bands, but not at the level that dents any charts, much less tops them.
Shorty appears as a third way in the story - neither locked in tradition like Annie nor capitulating to market interests like Marvin. His musical success in real life has come because he has figured out how to create a sound that genuinely embraces funk, R&B and brass, but does so in a personal way - one that honors his youth as well. On the other hand, when Shorty’s a part of the show, he never seems fully integrated into it. Perhaps it’s due to the state of his acting chops, or the fact that he imagines a bigger future than Batiste (Wendell Pierce) - his primary foil on the show - does for himself. New Orleans is Shorty’s home, but even in 2008 he was in the process of becoming a citizen of the larger musical world. The prices we pay has been a theme throughout Treme, and the one person who has yet to seriously face that question is Annie. It will be interesting to see how it resolves in her case.
- Larry (Lance Nichols) never seemed like a proper match for LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) - more like the very safe haven she ran to after her relationship to Batiste ended. It’s no surprise that she is not with him when this season begins.
- I was amused to see the show seemingly play with its own affection for echoes. When Janette walked into Patois, I started to make a note - that was the real home of her first restaurant - when she starts talking to chef Aaron Burgau about the restaurant going in after she left.
- Is Sonny (Michiel Huisman) going to get anything good to do this season? Judging by the way he’s moved from place-we-need-him to place-we-need-him to place-we-need-him in the first episode of the season, the odds aren’t good.
- I thought Todd VanDerWerff at The Onion's AV Club had one of the best comments on the show in the recent spate of writing leading into this final season:
Headed into its fourth and final season,Treme has never quite washed its not-Wire status off. This is too bad, because at its best, Treme is one of TV’s most vibrant and vital shows. It’s a series less about telling stories, or having grand character arcs than it is about capturing the act of living with a focus on the way recovery, of cities and broken individuals, is undertaken one week, one day, one step at a time. The show’s beauty is not in big moments, or exquisitely written scenes (though it has both), it comes in the pauses between, the semicolons and commas that make up the bulk of many lives, but which TV has trouble giving full heft.