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TV Review: Treme – “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront”

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DJ Davis McAlary: "Ladies and Gentleman, a live chicken in the studio!"

Not for long.

New Orleans' famous Coco Robicheaux appears in the introductory scene of Treme's second episode, having the dubious distinction of being the first to sacrifice a chicken in the series. The moment was a nod to the significance of Haitian voodoo and more than a nod to the importance of Haitian society to New Orleans culture. Summoning Ezili Dantor, mother and protector, Mr. Robicheaux pours the Barbancourt Rhum, lights the spirit candles, and hypnotically strokes a rooster's feathers with a fearsome knife. Slaughter thankfully takes place off camera. More on Ezili later.

In a recent radio interview Treme creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer posed the question: "Can you do a show about regular people – [a show] not about doctors saving lives or gangsters killing people or people making decisions about the fate of democracy in the West Wing?"

Apparently, the answer is yes. You can.

After just one episode, HBO announced it was picking up a second season of Treme. "I can't think of another show that is more emblematic of what we aspire to be as a network than Treme," Michael Lombardo, HBO's programming president, said Tuesday in announcing the renewal. "We are thrilled that the press has recognized the profound artistry and intelligence of this show and are eager to see where David Simon and Eric Overmyer take us in a second season."

In last night's "Meet De Boys on the Battlefront," named for a famous Mardi Gras tune, Simon and Overmyer take us to the music as New Orleans song moves to forefront of the story, as important as any character. I would argue, sometimes sacrificing forward movement of the narrative for the color and atmosphere of New Orleans. "Music was the raison d'être of the show, the heart of the show," explains Overmyer. "We've been learning how to do the music in such a way that it doesn't stop the show cold." The music in the episode soared; the story wasn't cold but started and stalled through its carefully paced, building and rebuilding storylines.

Simon describes Treme as a "fictional story but we're trying to be rigorous about what has happened in New Orleans since the storm." Trying to be rigorous forces a lot of exposition into the narrative. There is a lot of preaching and high-handedness as well in Treme so far. Moments with Steve Zahn's character thankfully balance all this out. Davis McAlary's (Steve Zahn) storyline was one of the more entertaining of the episode. Losing his DJ job over the bloodletting in the radio studio, an historic event "just not in the positive sense," he returns home, and we get a glimpse of Davis' sheltered childhood. Antiques? Garden District? McAlary is fast becoming one of my favorite characters with his mixture of bemusement and intelligence and his own self-mythologizing.

Summoned by Coco Robicheaux's ritual, the vodou persona of Ezili, subsequently and in a fascinating and successful motif, appears throughout the episode in the guise of many mothers. Some we have already met: civil rights lawyer Toni Bernette mothers her daughter while trying to find another mother's missing son; Ladonna (Khandi Alexander below) struggles to maintain her family business, Gigi's Lounge in Treme, while also trying to care for her sons in Baton Rouge; Desiree, Antoine's girlfriend and mother of his baby, is living hand to mouth: "There is a difference between a gig and a job, Antoine, you gotta get a job."

Other mothers make their first appearance in the series: Davis' mother Ramona McAlary (Ann McKenzie, looking very much the New Orleans society matron) is a business owner who must deal with her adult child coming home for a handout. Restaurant owner Janette Desautal must turn to her mother for a loan to keep the restaurant in business

The battlefront noted in the title, to some extent, is between the writers of Treme and its audience: those in the know about New Orleans and those who only know New Orleans from popular culture and maybe a little social studies in high school. There was a smugness in this episode that I hope disappears as the series finds its feet, a smugness personified in the introduction of Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a busker who has no patience with the tourists for whom he is playing. From the beginning of the show with Coco Robicheaux talking about the "tourists and the tee-shirts" to Sonny mocking the do-gooders from the visiting church missions to Antoine's reluctance to play Bourbon Street, there is an "us vs. them" mentality that in all likelihood stems from real, inevitable emotions in the follow-up to the storm.

From what we see, Davis' mother's livelihood is selling to tourists, Sonny's is too. His annoyance with the tourists may be understandable but not watchable: "Have you ever even heard of the ninth ward before the storm? So why are you so fired up about it now?" Some characters in Treme rail against the lack of attention to New Orleans' problems (John Goodman's character, Creighton Bernette) and some characters rail against the help. In Sonny's case, it's hard to imagine what his fellow musician Annie (violinist Lucia Micarelli) sees in him.

There are many famous musicians throughout "Battlefront." Some are world famous like Allan Toussaint and Elvis Costello. Some are New Orleans famous like Mr. Robicheaux and Kermit Ruffins. And then there are so many more musicians ducking in and out of scenes; it's disorienting to the viewer without a scorecard. I knew I should know some of these musicians, but, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, I do not know what I do not know.

Much of Treme is in a secret language that can be frustrating to the audience. The non-New Orleans resident is constantly reminded of what they don't know about the Crescent City, but patience, as I said in last week's column, patience. "It's a beginning," as Albert Lambreaux, having returned home to clean up and gather up his Mardi Gras Indian tribe, says when only one person shows up for tribal practice.

I appreciate David Simon's refusal to ever talk down to his audience, trusting that they will follow these immersions into unique urban cultures. I also understand those who may be put off. A little patience by the writers with their audience would help. After all, isn't everyone a tourist somewhere? Isn't the audience essentially a tourist buying a tee-shirt, a story a souvenir hawked by a writer?

To their credit, there is acknowledgment of the other side. Creighton Bernette is hesitant to finish his book on prior New Orleans flooding. "I don't want to be accused of cashing in on the storm like some other schmucks I can mention." Just who are the schmucks?

The Wire still casts a heavy shadow on Treme, hopefully to dissipate with time, or maybe it won't. Perhaps that's what is inevitable to the follow-up series to the greatest television drama of all time.

It was disconcerting to see Clarke Peters (below) as Chief Albert Lambreaux beating up a young thief in a scene so dark I couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Lester Freamon would never do that! And the scene when the missing Daymo Brooks is found and to be reunited with his family doesn't quite work for The Wire fan. In a case of mistaken identity, David Brooks turns out not to be the vanished Daymo Brooks. "This is not my son" says the mother. "There's been some kinda mistake," says the attorney.

Well, yes, it's a mistake. He was Slim Charles. "Tell them your name." I more than half-expected Anwan Glover to say "Slim Charles." David Brooks turns out to be not the missing son, but one of The Wire's few heroes (if there was any.) Okay, so he's not your son. Isn't Slim's appearance a consolation, though? I joke, but it is an indication of how deeply ingrained characters from the prior series can disrupt Treme's drama.

The pilot was so glorious; some letdown in the second episode is inevitable. Still in love with the concept of the series, my complaining, I suspect, has something in common with the owner of Davis' radio station, with "no sense of theatre – so few do." Word is that Harry Shearer has much to say about Treme and that actor David Morse will soon join the cast. Now I'm off to steep some tea and burn some toast.

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • Kim

    Wow. I didn’t think someone could articulate my every thought about this episode, but you did. BRAVO on recognizing the smugness of some of the scenes, as well as pointing out the Wire characters. I still call Wendell Pierce’s character in Treme, Bunk. :)

  • Riva

    Wow, great article! The best I’ve read, yet, and I’m reading everything I can find. I love the observation of the mothers. I hadn’t put that together yet. I look forward to your take on the next episode.

  • Brueso

    1) Re the smugness- yes, it was unpleasent to see Sonny’s attitude, but it would be also wrong to show every musician as cool go-with-the-flow types. Some have suggested that the Sonny-Addie story could be a recreation of the real life busker who killed his partner and then himself post-Katrina (covered in the book “Shake the Devil”). Perhaps Sonny’s mood swing is a sign that that could be the case. I doubt there is much of anyone who didn’t think Sonny was being a jerk- particularly toward some kids who had come down there to help. (How would they about the 9th ward pre-Katrina since if the media does ever cover N.O., it was French Quarter only). But just because the character says it doesn’t meant David Simon share that kind of attitude.

    What unhinged the Chief (and I share your sometimes thinking this character will be like Lester) probably had something to do with banging his head against the wall for 3+ months. Would he have given the kid a beating pre-Katrina? Probably. But maybe not as hard.

    Re the Slim Charles appearance- I’m starting to wonder whether that won’t just be a quick cameo. We heard the lawyer Toni say that some inmates were stealing bracelets. Maybe whoever Slim actually was portraying here was a more hardened criminal who took LaDonna’s brothers wrist band cause he knew he was in for something comparatively light (the possibilities of what happened to the brother if that was the case are very bleak). I guess we’ll find out!

  • http://deathknellforseriouscriticism.blogspot.com/ Kate

    Hi! Thanks for the kind words. I hope I stop pointing out the Wire characters – it’s lazy writing! But I can’t help it. The Wire was my obsession for awhile.

    Brueso, you absolutely right about Sonny’s character. He is certainly there to balance out the story, but I have to hope his story isn’t going down that “Shake the Devil” road! I was not aware of that murder until I read the Times-Picayune message boards yesterday. Gruesome! Wouldn’t it be ironic if the crazy killer showed up here after being a hoax in the Wire? Oh, there I go again: the Wire, the Wire, the Wire. I’ll stop – I promise.