At the start of the second season of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s Treme, we’re introduced to a relatively new character, Nelson Hidalgo, played quite well by Jon Seda, a veteran of Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Streets. We don’t know what exactly he does, but it’s clear he sells something, perhaps nothing more than his big smile and his friendly, profit-promising persona. Is he a seductive cheat able to ingratiate himself with towering confidence and vast charm, like Irimias leading the villagers away from their homes in Sátántangó? Or is he a man who truly falls head over heels for New Orleans, with its traditions, culture, and atmosphere that refuses to go quietly?
It takes the entire season for Hidalgo’s true intentions to show, as he buys up vacant properties, invests in businesses, and enters into a few dozen handshake deals with local politicians and opinion-makers. Meanwhile, his cousin, Arnie (Jeffrey John Carisalez), who was introduced briefly in the first season, is doing the hard work of rebuilding, like everyone else: fixing homes, improving businesses, finding lost friends and family members, and recuperating and maintaining a great city’s unique persona. And Simon and Overmyer, working with a strong roster of directors, writers, and consultants, remain dedicated to the slow build of detail and nuance in each character in their vast menagerie, making each individual’s triumphs, follies, tragedies, and redemptions all the more resonant.
If the first season of Treme was all about reconstruction and finding something resembling peace in the wake of profound tragedy, the second season seems to be about desperation, exhaustion, and death, but not in the way you’d necessarily imagine. Toni (Melissa Leo) and Lt. Colson (David Morse) find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy to cover up the shooting death of a young man by police after the storm, while Ladonna (the great Khandi Alexander), fresh off of finally laying her brother to rest, is attacked, beaten, and raped in her bar. Chief Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) has sunk deep into anger and depression over the state of his home and the loss of his practice space. Creighton’s suicide continues to haunt Toni and her daughter, Sofia (India Ennenga), as Annie (the consistently astonishing Lucia Micarelli) finds herself devastated by the violent shooting of her close friend and songwriting partner, Harley (Steve Earle).
In an eloquent bit of foreshadowing, the second season opens with many of these characters visiting tombstones at a local graveyard as a young boy practices his trumpet outside, setting up both the heft of emotional turmoil that has been (and will be) done and the seemingly unfazed perseverance of the community. The latter is further reinforced in the personages of Davis (a never-better Steve Zahn) and Antoine, played with bigger-than-life swagger by Wendell Pierce. As the second season begins, Davis and Antoine essentially have the same dream—to have their own band—and both find their dreams less unfulfilled than augmented. As Antoine’s Soul Apostles disband, he finds himself stepping up as a music teacher at a local high school, whereas Davis begins as a co-founder of a new record label and the guitarist in a hip-hop/bounce group, only to lose the latter position when his limited skills are put into glaring relief.
Inarguably the most fully realized and humanist-inclined series currently airing on TV, Treme is based around an essential dichotomy that we not only expect, but rely on in modern life, perhaps even more so in the aftermath of disaster: the ability to at once put yourself on the line for a personal dream, and to trust in social and political infrastructure and tradition. And though Simon and Overmyer take no shame in reminding everyone who bungled the job (President Bush is invoked in a variety of manners), the stress is far more on local government and local people attempting to readjust to the demolished landscape. Furthermore, the show’s writers stay perceptively true to the slow ease of time in NOLA, so when something as hugely significant as Antoine putting his family and responsibilities above his dream of being a world-traveling trombone player, the emotional impact is tremendous, rather than fleeting.
The show’s creators maintain an equilibrium between the personal and the political that miraculously never stinks of detachment or familiar melodrama, which becomes even more stunning when one witnesses the anger of the series as a whole. In a courageous move, Simon and Overmyer relocate an ample portion of the show to NYC, following Delmond (Rob Brown), a popular jazz trumpet player and Chief Lambreaux’s son, and Janette (Kim Dickens), a brilliant chef who bounces around between restaurants run by David Chang and Eric Ripert. It’s a tricky proposition, but the benefits are twofold, as we not only get the occasional respite from the perpetual swirl of life in the Big Easy, but we also get a palpable sense of cultural influence from a singular habitat, whether in the form of Janette’s robust takes on shrimp and grits and chicken and waffles or Delmond’s revisionist jazz experiments.
So, when Hidalgo proves unable to explain to Arnie exactly what he does for the community and is more or less banished from doing any sort of business in New Orleans, thanks to a bad political connection, we understand something particularly true about New Orleans and, by extension, Treme. No man’s singular vision of what the city should be can outweigh what it is to the community, the people who live there and have lived there. And as it is, Treme exemplifies a level of democratic storytelling that is every inch as ambitious as The Wire, and distinctly tied to the generous glories and unspeakable horrors of history.
Overflowing as it is with jazz, rock, blues, soul, hip-hop, bounce, and funk, the audio portion of HBO’s Blu-ray package of Treme’s second season is big, bold, and borderline perfect. Horns, drums, pianos, and guitars are nearly as clear and pronounced as the dialogue, but I only noticed a single moment when dialogue seemed overtaken my music, and that was arguably on purpose. The full storm of sounds from the Big Easy creates an immersive backdrop to the chief auditory elements, and the entire mix sounds perfectly balanced. The visuals are very nearly as impressive, thanks to HBO’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The vast array of colors are produced with spectacular clarity, from the yellows of the school band polo shirts to the calm, woody interiors of David Chang’s restaurant to the glorious white’s of Chief Lambreaux’s suit of feathers. Detailing and texture are impeccable, and black levels are perfectly saturated and inky at nearly every step. Per usual with HBO, this is a hugely impressive presentation.
Like the series itself, the extras included in this package offer a large variety of viewpoints and starting points for the show itself. Most of the commentary tracks deal, justifiably, with the music of the show and its history, and its easy to get swept up in all the talk. There are a handful of commentaries dealing with the production of the show, which are equally informative and involving, to the point that it would have been nice to have a few more including more members of the cast. The three featurettes provide a few pockets of information about the show’s production and its fascination with tradition and history, however, and makes up for the lack of extra production-centric commentaries, for the most part.
HBO gives the superb second season of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s post-Katrina drama an excellent transfer that captures the detail of every water-damaged wall and the sonic bliss of every trombone blast.