A scattered series of last looks at the HBO series.
Efforts to pull my thoughts on Treme now that it’s over into one unfied, coherent whole have come to naught, so here are a series of thoughts in no particular order:
- The show concluded Sunday night with an episode that didn’t end much because the stories don’t end either. The show portrayed characters in the city’s culture industry trying to reassert their place after Hurricane Katrina, but Katrina was often the external force that put the characters under pressure, not the motivator. Antoine (Wendell Pierce) was likely hustling in much the same way in 2003 and 2004 as he was in 2006 and 2007. The problems faced by Janette (Kim Dickens) were exacerbated by life after the storm, but the story of her attempt to open a restaurant was more about the challenge of the independent artist in the process of sorting out her relationship to money and business. The crime stories were more storm-specific, but even those were simply heightened versions of stories that happened pre-K as well.
You can’t discount Katrina, though. In Alan Sepinall’s retrospective interview with David Simon, Simon says one of the stories that was sacrificed for the shortened final season was the dissolution of LaDonna’s (Khandi Alexander) marriage to Larry (Lance Nichols), and that was set up as a storm-specific storyline. Anyone who was here can attest to exhausting emotional toll of 2005 and 2006, when you thought you were doing what had to be done, but there was a sense that progress was provisional and could come apart tomorrow if not relentlessly maintained. They both did what they thought needed to be done to do the right things by their family, their stability, and their sense of identity, and doing those perfectly reasonable things pulled their relationship apart.
- It’s hard to think of a show that more needed Dave Walker’s weekly explication because Treme often seemed to be written to participate in the city’s conversations, even though the episodes aired months or longer after the conversations took place. This season’s anxiety about North Rampart Street and neighborhood-based music clubs was clearly written with the noise and zoning conflicts in mind, and throughout the series characters dropped lines referencing real people and events (such as David Morse’s Colson complaining about Greg Mefferts, someone few outside of New Orleans would know about) whether they were crucial to the scene’s logic or not. Unfortunately, because those moments were belated, they rarely rang as right as they were likely intended. Still, they made Treme one of the most meta shows on television, even before Antoine supplied the trombone for an actor playing a musician just as Stafford Agee did for Wendell Pierce on the show.
- Treme was also deceptive because the efforts at verisimilitude obscured the fact that the show wasn't set in New Orleans; it was set in David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s New Orleans to address the role of culture in a city (or perhaps the potential role of culture. Does it give other cities a reason to exist like it does in New Orleans?). They took liberties with the factual record for their reasons, usually to get to a bigger truth. Or, to present music they wanted to hear. Producers have made more personal decisions for less charitable reasons.
- The finale suggested that growth is incremental, almost imperceptible in New Orleans. Davis (Steve Zahn) deals briefly with his own buzzy, ephemeral place in the city’s culture before re-embracing it. It’s only in his moment of kindness toward his WWOZ station manager that we see the flicker of emotional progress. On the other hand, Antoine has largely cleaned up his act and found his paternal place in the world, but the old hound can’t resist flirting on Mardi Gras, even if the moment feels compulsive and unlikely. Lambreaux’s funeral mirrors the Mardi Gras Indian funeral in the first season, but the focus is on its unlikely emotional power. The first funeral scene was about the disaster tourists and how hard it was to live a normal life in the post-Katrina spotlight, while the second was simply surreal to have the costumes, ceremony and chants in such a domestic setting. It was also more moving because by season four, we’d had time to develop emotional investment in not only the deceased but his family.
- Annie (Lucia Micarelli) went through some of the biggest changes, but she too hasn’t traveled as far as it seems. In season one, her musical life was driven by Sonny (Michiel Huismans), then she first started to find her own musical voice with Harley (Steve Earle). His influence loomed heavily over her Bayou Cadillac phase, where the music was also shaped by the band (The Red Stick Ramblers). In the end, Marvin (Michael Cerveris) has moved her in a slicker Americana/country direction, and it’s hard to read her in her final scene. She seems happier but not necessarily happy at the end. She’s drifted from music she could play to music she could play without ever finding her own voice and the music she had to play. Antoine and for the most part Delmond (Rob Brown) didn’t experience that uncertainty. For her, music is a series of artistic choices - classical? country? Cajun? - whereas their connection to New Orleans’ culture gave them a clearer sense of purpose.
- I’ve generally been impatient with Annie’s story, but it was an important part of Treme because it illustrated some meaningful truths. Marvin was generally right when he wanted her to go to Nashville and leave Cajun music and French lyrics behind if she wanted to be commercially successful. Yes, there’s a market around the country and around the world for Cajun music and for New Orleans’ horn-based music, but there’s a much bigger audience for music that isn’t either of those things.
- For me, season two suffered from at least one winceworthy line or exchange an episode, the best example being Davis’ use of - and subsequent explanation of - “gumbo ya ya” at Tipitina’s when talking to Annie after she asked how Juvenile rapping in front of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band worked. In retrospect, I wonder if the moment and many like it weren’t truer than we’d like to believe, and that we say perfectly awkward things in our efforts to be clever, smart, or probing.
- I can’t think of another show that depended on viewers trusting the creators in the same way Treme did. When Davis was annoying in season one, for instance, we had to accept that Simon and Overmyer had reasons for him to be that way, and he would pay off. If you believed, you found the characters rich and engaging enough to stay with. If not, you likely found much of it hard to swallow and moved on.
- One of Simon’s initial assessments of New Orleans was that it specialized in moments, and the last half-season seemed like the most complete realization of that concept. The music scenes often seemed like the reason for episodes, and they existed to keep skeletal story-related scenes that could never reach fruition from bumping into each other. The balance felt right and organic, perhaps because it was almost immediately clear that narrative wasn’t driving the season.
- Ranking: Season three (the payoff for me of what the first seasons set up with few awkward scenes), season one (which got better as it went along), season four, season two (which seemed to try too hard).
- In his earliest musings on the series, Simon suggested that if The Wire was about what’s wrong with American cities and systems, Treme would be about what was worth preserving. But it’s possible to go even further than that. The Wire is about what happens when things fall apart, while Treme is about the hard, but necessary work of putting them back together again. - Todd VanDerWerff at The A.V. Club
- Moments That Stayed with Me: LaDonna during the second line for her brother at the end of season one, Nelson (Jon Seda) watching cartoons in his hotel room with a naked woman beside him in season two
- Nelson helped to flesh out the shadowy, moneyed side of the story. He was the wildcatter who came into town to pick up some easy money, but he was also the out-of-towner who came in and loved the city. That’s the story of many of us who moved here, minus the money part. You can see that he’s never going to have the money, power and influence of Ligouri (Dan Ziskie), but Nelson’s having more fun and is capable of gestures like the one he makes in the final episode.
- If nothing else, Treme was valuable for its portrayal of musicians. Television has generally presented caricatures of rock stars, not community members who make their livings playing music just as others earn theirs as accountants, architects, and roofers. I wonder if the zoning and noise controversies would be playing out any differently if the dominant narrative regarding musicians wasn’t one of indolence and decadence. I wonder if the city as a whole would put more money and muscle into culture instead of lip service if musicians had better PR.
- I also wonder if I was more patient with Treme because I knew it was going to end somewhere between three and five seasons. I tend to drift out of shows when I detect the whiff of soap opera (I’m looking at you Six Feet Under and Big Love). For me, that’s usually the point when it feels like the show exists to give us a reason to spend time with the characters, not to tell a story, and it often came in second season when, instead of moving closer to a conclusion, the characters started doing self-destructive things that moved them farther from any clear goals. When characters took bad turns on Treme, it had been set up so that the choices played like a natural extension of the characters rather than a production room decision. Having lived here during these years may have made those decisions seem plausible to me, though.
- Treme may not have been the strict, capital-T “truth,” but it dramatized too many truths to be dismissed.
- The second season began with a kid walking through the story while honking poorly on his trumpet - a too-poetic device to be true, but I recognized it. When a young teenager down my block started to play trombone in high school, his mother wouldn’t let him play it in the house. Similarly, this final season included what became a public folk art project in a pothole - something I recognized from my neighborhood and something Simon drew from his New Orleans neighborhood. Maybe telling New Orleans’ story is such a challenge because it all sounds so crazy. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”