Down in the Treme
HBO's unconventional series about life in New Orleans after Katrina debuts on DVD and Blu-ray
"Treme: The Complete First Season" (HBO)
David Simon followed up "The Wire" with this beautifully textured series set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the locals tried to pick up their lives and careers in the face of the devastation and damage, the exodus from homes left unlivable by water damage and mold, and the frustrations of bureaucratic tangles, government failures and overloaded demand on private contractors.
But don't think this is a documentary. The plight of the citizens in New Orleans is illustrated through the experiences of the characters (most fictional, some real) that make up the sprawling community created by Simon and co-producer/writer Eric Overmyer. And if it seems like we're getting lectures now and then from some of the more outspoken characters, such as John Goodman's novelist and literature professor Creighton Bernette or Melissa Leo's bulldog of an attorney Toni Bernette or even Steve Zahn's community character and goofball activist Davis McAlary, it's out of frustration, anger, loss and a feeling of helplessness against a juggernaut of apathy.
This is an ensemble piece and the stories are spread around a wealth of characters and experiences, but you could argue that the heart of the show belongs to Albert Lambreaux, played by "The Wire" veteran Clarke Peters with a fierce resolve to reclaim his city and his culture. And Wendell Pierce, another "The Wire" veteran, is just as central a character as jazzman Antoine Batiste, struggling to make a living as a musician while living far outside the city limits and commuting in by taxi to hustle any gig he can in the depressed nighttime culture.
There is plenty of righteous anger in the show, little of which can be laid squarely at anyone's door; this is life in a city that has become one big systemic failure, without the resources to return to anything resembling normalcy. Just see restaurateur Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) try to keep her restaurant running with insurance slow to respond, unreliable gas and power coming to the kitchen, food supply issues, debt hanging over her and customers thin with tourism waning.
Given all that frustration and anxiety, it's a marvel how the show also embraces a joie de vivre in community and music and the cultural heritage, and in the optimism of characters who defy the challenges and stay to rebuild. The music especially is all over this show, playing on the soundtrack of the radios and stereos of the characters when not actually pouring out live from jam sessions and club performances. The Second Line parades and Fat Tuesday celebrations are bittersweet as seen here, both marvelous communal events of color and music and, as characters observe, downsized versions of the city's signature cultural events. Where some see joy and defiant assertion of New Orleans' lifeblood, others see the city they loved disappearing. That disappointment reverberates through the final episodes as some of these hardy folks simply give in and give up.
The ten-episode debut season debuts on DVD and Blu-ray, each in four-disc sets in a fold-out digipak.
"We wanted to do a show about culture," explains Eric Overmyer in his commentary track with creator/co-writer/co-producer David Simon on the series debut. "We did not want to do a show about cops or doctors or lawyers per se. The storm gave us a way to frame it so that we could talk about New Orleans culture and how it would come, if it would come back, how it would deal with this gigantic catastrophe." There is commentary on five episodes in all, including the final three episodes of the season, by various stars, writers and producers, and for the most part the behind-the-camera folks are more forthcoming, but John Goodman also brings the perspective the a local who can put his personal experience up against that of the characters in the show. There is also a separate music-specific commentary on each episode with WBGO’s Josh Jackson and NPR Music’s Patrick Jarenwattananon (you can skip directly from song to song to get their take).
There is "The Making of Treme," a fairly general 14-minute featurette that's more introduction to the show than investigation, and the more interesting half-hour "Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street," a much more revealing production that offers as much about the history of the neighborhood that gave the show its name (Treme is just above the French Quarter) as it does the show itself. That place where the production and the culture of the real Treme meet is where this documentary is most interesting.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray release are a couple of interactive viewing modes which, like a lot of HBO's similar supplements, I find more intriguing than useful. "Down in the Treme: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans" gives viewers an interface to look up details on the characters, music, cuisine and locations, all brought up in pop-up screens and "The Music of Treme" is similar, with pop-up access to notes on the songs on the soundtrack as they appear.
The second season of "Treme" begins on HBO at the end of April.