“What went wrong? I married a God damn musician,” says LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) in the pilot episode of HBO’s Treme. And thus we immediately understand something integral to both the impetus of LaDonna’s marriage to trombone player Antoine Batiste (the great Wendell Pierce) and their eventual (inevitable?) divorce. Down in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Antoine blows brass for any group of players that pays and lets his dick wander wherever a willing woman can be found, explaining why LaDonna left with their two sons and Antoine has since made a home with Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc), the woman he knocked up. As the pilot episode of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s groundbreaking series opens, three months after Katrina laid waste to the Crescent City, Antoine scrambles out of his door to play the first post-Katrina second line with his neighbors, colleagues, and friends, most of whom are musicians. “Play for that money, boys!” Antoine yells out as the parade commences and everyone within earshot happily obliges.
More than even Nashville, New Orleans has come to be known by its musical tradition, and of the myriad of things Treme excels at, its most accomplished and pervasive facet is its love for musicians and their craft. Antoine essentially acts as the series’s anchor, though he drifts in and out of gigs, barbecue joints, bars, and strip clubs without much sense of what will happen next, but there’s always music around him or coming out of him. As Simon and Overmyer lay out this monumental narrative, however, it becomes clear that no one in Antoine’s orbit has much of a clue as to where they will be from day to day. For many, they can only listen for news of a job or a sweet gig, scrap together enough money for food and shelter and search for signs of those who were lost in the waters or patiently await their return.
The latter is what chiefly concerns LaDonna when she’s not tending to her bar or busy convincing herself that her loving days with Antoine have ended for good. LaDonna’s brother, David, was reported missing not long after the flood and upon her return home, she has picked every friend and neighbor’s memory for clues to his whereabouts. She even seeks help from Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, a veteran of Simon’s riveting Homicide series), a civil rights lawyer who uncovers records that suggest that David was wrongly incarcerated when the storm hit. The search LaDonna, Toni, and LaDonna’s mother embark on to figure out what happened to David, which involves an exhausting amount of time spent fighting the police and the legal system in general, is at once the show’s most conventional storyline and it’s most dramatically forceful, especially in its conclusion.
Other storylines, such as the doomed romance between a lovely violin player, Annie (a superb Lucia Micarelli), and her junky, keyboard-playing beau, Sonny (Michiel Huisman), begin in conventional terrain but maintain a mercurial attitude toward dramatic focus throughout. What may have simply been a “drug” story becomes a study of how ambition can be stilted by comfort and how it takes bravery and even a few failures to grow as an artist and a human being. A similar study, though a far darker and more philosophical one, can be found in the case of Toni’s husband, Creighton (the inimitable John Goodman), a literature professor who begins making YouTube videos to voice his vehement anger over Katrina and the recovery effort. A New Orleans historian, Creighton finds his long-thought defunct writing career resurrected when publishers start chomping at the bit for a big slab of post-Katrina nonfiction; the ensuing deal promises huge notoriety but also causes him to develop a formidable case of writer’s block.
Goodman, who finds his juiciest role in years here, has been a resident of NOLA for 15 years now, lending a great sense of personal weight to the role of Creighton. He’s not the only one: Many of the performers are musicians who have spent much, if not all of their life in New Orleans, including Micarelli, who’s a classically trained violinist. It’s great fun to see Elvis Costello, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint getting in on the action, but the livelier spots are given to local legends like Coco Robicheaux, Trombone Shorty, and especially Kermit Ruffins, who regularly steals scenes from the pros. On closer examination, one might pick up that other local legends, Indian Tribe members, gig musicians, and survivors litter Simon and Overmeyer’s narrative landscape, including Ms. LeBlanc.
Another survivor and local legend, Davis Rogan, appears late in the series, but he also serves as the basis for Davis McAlary, a local musician, radio DJ, and professional wiseass, played by a stunningly good Steve Zahn. Davis isn’t a misanthrope, but he exudes an intellect and vocabulary that makes you think that he’d be a misanthrope if he lived in any other city. Fired from his DJ job, Davis embarks on a quasi-political campaign, sparked by his impromptu rerecording of Smiley Lewis’s irrepressible bounce classic “Shame Shame Shame” as a condemnation of George W. Bush and Mayor Ray Nagin, among others. Inherently scatterbrained, a pothead and a drunk, Davis oddly finds some sort of stability in his relationship with Janette (Kim Dickens), a chef and restaurant owner facing insurmountable debts from her meat and seafood suppliers.
Along with a cameo from Top Chef host Tom Colicchio, and fellow chefs Eric Ripert, Wiley Dufresne, and David Chang, Janette spurs yet another key element to understanding the effervescent liveliness of New Orleans, namely the food. Beignets are eaten nearly every episode and most characters can be seen at one point or another covered in barbecue sauce. This also gives a chance for Simon and Overmeyer, working with a staggeringly talented stable of directors, writers, consultants, and crew members, to flex their accuracy muscle: Notice how the Abita bottles are discarded after one episode for Budweiser and how Janette offers Creigton a Hubigs fried pie for dessert. As details go, these may seem minor, but they add up and lend a certainty to the show’s tone—a sense of pride in the unique nuances that separate New Orleans from other great American cities.
It would be easy to overstate that pride and oversaturate the series with reminders of, for instance, how important NOLA was to the African-American community in the wake of the abolishment of slavery but Simon and Overmyer remain thoroughly in the present. The most prideful display in the series comes in the form of Albert Lambreaux, powerfully and movingly embodied by Wire alum Clarke Peters. Lambreaux is the Big Chief, the leader of a group of Mardi Gras Indians, who dance, sing, and play music as a tribute to Native Americans while wearing outstandingly colorful, hand-sewn dresses made largely of bright feathers and beads. The series’s sensational pilot ends with Albert confronting one of his men, who is too overwhelmed by the damage done to dance, in full dress. “Won’t bow, don’t know how,” roars Albert, and here we can feel the weight of tradition and, indeed, the difference between being beholden to tradition and being stuck in the past.
Though he largely works on his costume alongside his family and cohorts, Albert is also, like Davis and Creighton, a symbol of civil outrage, as he gets jailed for breaking into and staying in the needlessly condemned projects as a form of protest. And like Creighton, he’s also an outspoken proponent of practical knowledge and labor, tools directly tied to the task of rebuilding his beloved city. The political clusterfuck that Katrina stirred up dances on the tongues of nearly every character, but the focus of the series is about the practical problems that have now become everyday hardships for the residents of New Orleans that have actually been allowed to return home. Getting people home, reinstating essential services, identifying bodies, reconstructing buildings and homes, bringing back business and revenue, allowing a sense of stability and tradition to be felt once more: These are the very real concerns that Treme struggles with, and the honesty the series summons in its characters and their struggles with these concerns elevates it into the pantheon of great humane works that television has produced.
This is not to say that the politics and social implications of Katrina aren’t worth thorough examination, but we already have Spike Lee’s devastating and immense When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts to show how America witnessed, discussed, and reacted to the disaster and the recovery. We even have Werner Herzog’s woefully undervalued Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to relate the hallucinatory displacement and loss of moral equilibrium felt in the wake of the disaster. Treme, with its innumerable digressions and moments of startling clarity, could, with time, come to eclipse even The Wire, and like that series, what Treme can be remembered most clearly for is its dedicated documentation of a specific community in a specific city in turbulent times, though The Wire was admittedly more thematically universal. But what Simon and Overmyer have done here represents an entire city that the world obviously mourns with but perhaps doesn’t fully understand, if simply because they have never lived in the epicenter of a national tragedy. Indeed, the creators of Treme essentially have blown a trumpet triumphantly in the grim and ghastly face of death.
HBO’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Treme, like nearly all their Blu-ray releases, is a thing to behold. Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the series is filled to brimming with exuberant visuals and they are all handled beautifully. Whether in Albert’s radiant orange Native American dress or the dingy neon landscape of the strip club where Wendell takes a gig, the colors pop radiantly and there’s lovely fine detail to be found in the clothing, faces, and materials that are strewn throughout the Treme. Black levels are perfect and there are no signs of artifacting, banding, or smearing at any point. The audio is suitably perfect, mixing together a formidable mix of live instrumentation, recorded music, atmosphere noise, and hearty dialogue. The balance is simply extraordinary, and in such cases as the Mardi Gras parade or Janette and Davis’s daylong date, it’s the sort of thing a top-grade Blu-ray player was built for.
There are a generous amount of commentaries offered here and they all give key insights not only into the production, but the creative sparks that lead to the various narratives in Treme. For me, the best is David Simon and Eric Overmyer talking about the origins of the story and the production on the pilot episode, though it narrowly beats out John Goodman speaking about the series’s best episode, "Wish Someone Would Care." The In-Show features are informative, if not ultimately necessary seeing as each episode features music commentaries giving full breadth to the innumerable music styles that are at play. Then there’s the professional and insightful 29-minute featurette "Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street," which is a compacted history of the show’s production, the cast, and the city. Another making-of featurette, "The Making of Treme," is also included.
A triumphant feat of television production, Treme’s deeply humane treatment of a communal tragedy, not a national one, quite simply blows the doors off the place.