Now That Treme’s Over, It's Time to Give It Another Chance



It's OK to come late to Treme — most of the show's characters don't consider punctuality much of a virtue, anyway. You can roll up whenever you like. Just bring an open mind, especially if you're someone who dismissed it after watching a few episodes of the first season. Now that the show's 36-episode run has concluded, you'll have plenty of time to binge-watch it on HBO's website. Treme’s brilliant fourth season was a truncated five episodes instead of the standard 10 or 11, a caveat attached to its renewal. The Wire didn't really catch on until after it ended either, but you can understand how that might not be much condolence for creator David Simon, who would probably prefer that his shows become popular and respected while they are still on. In an interview with critic Alan Sepinwall, Simon said he's not sure whether he'll continue trying to make long-form narrative television after Treme, even though he is by far one of the best in the game. He also remarked that he might just not be interested in telling the kind of stories that attract money. There is no big fantasy of power in Treme, no alternate life as a drug kingpin, mobster, or ladies' man. There are no crazy plot twists, no stunt casting (unless you consider using legendary local musicians like Dr. John as series regulars a stunt), and the cliff-hangers mostly just hang out. There are no dragons, but there is a lot of really wonderful music.

But there are plenty of monsters: crooked cops, useless insurance firms, and oily patrons of the arts, all scrabbling for gold coins in the footprint left by the giant reptilian demon named Hurricane Katrina. The characters are never just a conduit for the show to express a political view. When politics do come up, as they do quite often, it's never preachy or didactic. For a show about such heavy shit, it has a light touch. It's paced naturalistically, with narrative arcs that dance around in patterns instead of merely proceeding from point A to B. The characterization is as deep as any I've ever seen, as close to a great Russian novel as it is to The Sopranos. Simon's repertory cast is phenomenal, each actor wearing his or her role like a custom-sewn feather suit.

Even the two most loathed characters from the first season became three-dimensional and sympathetic. Local DJ and general fanatic Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn and based on real local DJ Davis Rogan, is about as similar to the real Davis as Llewyn Davis is to Dave Van Ronk. Zahn's spazzy white stoner nerd dilettante who's obsessed with black music presumably hit too close to home for some critics at first (including me) — I'm guessing that the average HBO viewer is far more of a Davis McAlary than a Jimmy McNulty, which might be why he was so hard to stomach. Davis got exponentially better, though, and so did junkie musician Sonny, played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, as we followed his journey through addiction and recovery and redemption. Redemption is possible for everyone on Treme. Despite all the horrible shit that happens to and because of characters on the show, the possibility of growth is never out of reach. Old dogs can always learn new tricks.

Similar in scope and detail to The Wire and set against the backdrop of New Orleans, Treme is about the struggle to create and get paid for it. Crime is everywhere, and violence close behind, but crime is not the major focus of the show. Simon wanted to portray the city in a positive light, to question why America is so culturally focused on its coastal outposts to the exclusion of all other cities. The show addresses criticisms of its own niche milieu early on in the first season, when trumpet player Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) gets in an argument about New Orleans's importance to jazz with two New York yuppies who are implying that it's nothing but a touristy "wax museum." Delmond furiously defends his hometown, not even trying to assert superiority, just equivalence. You hear this familiar argument about provincialism and pride all the time. Just substitute rap or electronic music for jazz. Or swap music for art or fashion or food.

In fact, Treme is so great that I have to question people who love The Wire but claim to be uninterested in Treme. If you liked The Wire, you will like Treme. It's essentially The Wire: Port of Call New Orleans. If you're only interested in patchwork-quilt stories about human beings and their basic needs when they're related to drugs and guns, I can't help you, bruh. And if you don't like the music on Treme, you probably don't enjoy much of anything. Plus there's so much to choose from: zydeco, brass band, bounce, trad jazz, R&B, Cash Money, No Limit, and a bustling metal scene. Do I sound like DJ Davis McAlary? Of course I do. Davis's habit of proselytizing about the things he loves to anyone who will listen (or isn't listening) is contagious.

The finale encompassed all the strengths of the show, in which deeply drawn characters ask important and difficult questions about the larger systems of culture and society. There is bitterness and anger on Treme, but the overarching theme is translating emotional frustration into creativity and love instead of violence or deceit. It's an optimistic show about making the best out of dire circumstances, because you have to make something to get through the day, be it a radio show, a carnival costume, a record, or shrimp and grits. The show's centerpieces are its many spectacular parades, held for occasions both happy and somber. There's so much to take pleasure in, no matter how sad life gets: the stupefying beauty of the Mardi Gras Indians performing in costume, the dirty electricity of a brass band, the taste of good wine. Feeling joy, listening to great music, and eating good food are all excellent ways to say "fuck you" to sadness, especially when done as a group. It's OK to get into Treme now that it's over, even if you missed it the first time around. Nobody will judge you for showing up late to such a fun party. Everyone is welcome on the second line.


Hey, Emmy voters: Last chance to show 'Treme' some love

Emmy voters, I urge you all -- don't forget "Treme."

I know it's early. Everyone's talking about who will win Oscars, and the TV academy doesn't start voting for months, but by then you'll have put it out of your minds. You probably weren't watching while it aired, so catch up on it now. Beat the rush.

I say "don't forget," but I really mean "finally acknowledge the existence of" HBO's New Orleans-set drama. After a pair of nominations in its first season (for directing and songwriting), it dropped off the radar of Emmy voters entirely. That's understandable. You're not the only ones who forgot it was on the air. It never had the ratings, and even a generous network would have been well within its rights to cancel it after one or two seasons, but HBO gave it four to round out its story -- well, three and a half, since its final season was just a shortened five episodes.

Five episodes is just shy of the six required for consideration as a drama series, so it looks like HBO is expecting to push this as a miniseries, the same way Showtime did successfully last year with the final abbreviated season of "The Big C." That means, Emmy voters, you don't have to worry about finding room for it among "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones," "Homeland," and the overwhelming mass of other current dramas. So, no more excuses. You'll have plenty of room in the movie/miniseries categories. Enough, anyway, to accommodate this underrated gem.

You've recognized David Simon's projects before in longform categories. While he barely made a dent in the drama series categories with "The Wire" and "Treme," his "Generation Kill" miniseries earned 11 nominations in 2009, winning three in technical categories, and "The Corner" won Best Miniseries, Writing, and Directing back in 2000.

Maybe you're worried about committing to a long, dense bummer of a show about poor people in post-Katrina Louisiana. To that I'd say you're describing the wrong series. While it's political and often sad -- and yes, a few tax brackets beneath TV's Drapers, Pritchetts, and Crawleys -- it's also boisterous and musical, and not as pessimistic as "The Wire" was. It's like "Nashville" for the New Orleans jazz and blues scene (the Robert Altman "Nashville," not the Connie Britton "Nashville").

But the average Emmy voter is probably like Liz Lemon, who complained in "30 Rock's" penultimate episode, "DVR's at 98 percent, but I'm just never in the mood to watch 'Treme.'" I urge you to be like Liz Lemon from slightly later in that episode when she marveled, "'Treme' gets good if you stick with it."

Or don't. I've watched the show, so I'll just tell you who to nominate, starting with Clarke Peters as cancer-stricken Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux and Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste, who matured over the course of the series from rudderless musician to dedicated music teacher. Both actors were also excellent on "The Wire," so consider a nomination for each of them a two-for-one deal.

Khandi Alexander is outstanding as bar-owner LaDonna; Alexander is usually outstanding, but despite previous roles in "The Corner" and "ER" she's never been nominated for an Emmy. Correct that.

Beyond the worthy writers and directors, the use of diverse musical styles, often intermingling with dialogue and crowd scenes, merits consideration in sound categories. The complex layering of storylines, which flow into and out of each other with perfect pacing, should put the show on the shortlist for picture editing.

Casting director Alexa Fogel has worked multiple times with Simon and helped make stars out of Idris Elba, Amy Ryan, and Michael B. Jordan ("The Wire"), as well as Alexander Skarsgard ("Generation Kill"). She should be swimming in Emmys, but to date she has won just two: for "NYPD Blue" in 1994 and 1995.

You can take my word for it -- please do -- but I hope you at least watch "Treme." The last season is only five hours long, just one hour more than "The Big C: Hereafter," which you finally embraced on its death bed after mostly snubbing it in the comedy races. To further put it in perspective, that's the equivalent of a couple of weeks of "The Daily Show," a handful of "Saturday Night Lives," and far fewer hours than you spent watching "Two and a Half Men" or "Boston Legal."

sources: Grantland | GoldDerby