I don’t like jazz. Or at least I never thought I did. So when Treme debuted last year, my reaction was fairly similar to most people: I watched the series premiere, realized that it wasn’t The Wire, and didn’t watch again. Boy, did I miss out. I happened to check out Treme’s second episode a couple weeks ago – thanks, On Demand! – and got hooked. I raced through the rest of Treme’s ten-episode first season in a matter of days. The last time I binged so hardcore on a TV series was…well, when I was watching The Wire.
It’s hard to describe Treme’s particular appeal. On paper, it seems imposing to the point of exhaustion. There are dozens of characters, most of them only loosely connected by virtue of basic geography. The show is so steeped in local New Orleans culture that the Times-Picayune has a weekly column, “Treme Explained,” that decodes the series’ relentless local references for us non-natives. It’s so New Orleans that it can feel like you’re watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Unlike on HBO siblings True Blood or Game of Thrones, there’s not really a grabby audience hook – no graphic pansexual orgies, no fantasy creatures, no crazy wigs. There is violence on Treme, but it’s never fun; there is sex on Treme, but it’s usually just a respite from the bleakness of post-Katrina life.
Treme is also a show that is much more about intricately-detailed moments than narrative progress – if you read a plot synopsis of the first season, you’d be forgiven for thinking that not very much happened. EW’s Ken Tucker summed up Treme’s style as “a new rhythm for TV storytelling,” but I can understand how the casual viewer might think Treme is a show without a center. (In this, Treme is similar to the recent seasons of Mad Men, another great show that plenty of people can’t stand because of the glacial plot.)
But here’s the best and simplest thing I can say about the show: It made me learn to love jazz. An average hour of Treme features more musical sequences than a typical episode of Glee, and the show works hard to illustrate how beautiful music comes from dark, bitter emotions. When you see perpetually-harried trombonist Antoine (Wendell Pierce) lift up his instrument and start playing, it’s simultaneously an escape from drudgery and a release of all his pent-up anger and anxiety. Moments like that make this show a truly unique, genuinely fun experience. That’s why I tell people not to worry if they don’t entirely understand the plot. The music, the atmosphere, the feeling of humanity striving for greatness – That’s what Treme is all about.
Last night’s season premiere kicked off seven months after the conclusion of last season. Some things haven’t changed – LaDonna’s husband is still telling her to sell the bar and move to Baton Rouge; Antoine’s baby-mama is still insisting that he get a real job; Sonny is still drunk, unshaven, and Dutch. David Morse has a much larger role as a police lieutenant, indicating that this season will focus on New Orleans’ rising crime wave. It also seems like his character is being set up as a romantic partner for the grieving Toni, which should seem like a cheap plot machination, but Morse and Melissa Leo have dynamite chemistry.
Jon Seda (so good in The Pacific) is joining the cast as a majestically shady developer with friends in high places. He’s also the cousin of one of my favorite supporting characters, the Bouncer from Texas, who still doesn’t know where to find music in New Orleans six months after moving there. In a nice grace note, Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary is dating ace fiddler Annie – hooray, let’s hope it lasts! Up in New York, Davis’ old friend-with-benefits Janette is working for a tyrant chef. She’s also living with Ziggy Sobotka. (Hey, I’ll stop making Wire references when they stop making it so easy!)
Treme isn’t perfect. I never found Delmond’s storyline all that interesting last season. Something about the character’s interior conflict – tradition vs. modernity, New Orleans vs. New York – felt a little bit too on-the-nose. Still, it was surprisingly compelling watching Delmond square off last night against some Manhattanite intellectuals who bandied around terms like “deracinated” and argued that contemporary New Orleans music is little more than waxwork minstrelsy. Of course, Delmond feels the same way – but he’s actually from New Orleans, gosh darn it, so he’s allowed to hate it.
That paradoxical thinking pops up everywhere on Treme. The show loves its city, but it’s not shy about exposing the corruption that was present in New Orleans long before Katrina arrived. No other movie or TV show has ever made New Orleans look better. No other movie or TV show has ever made New Orleans look worse. Treme is an undeniably weird show. It’s slow-paced and practically opaque, it might not be for everybody. But I urge you to give it a try. Hey, if it’s possible to enjoy a show about giant wolves and hottie twincest and ice zombies and wigs, isn’t it also possible to enjoy a show about good music, good food, and the death and life of an American city? Treme and Game of Thrones aren’t really all that different: They’re both about the battle for power, and how average people get swept up in the tidal waves of history. But only one of them comes with a trombone section.
Did you watch the Treme premiere? Did you like the new credits sequence? Seriously, can you even believe this show has somehow gotten a second season?
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