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TV Review: Treme – “On the Foot of Canal Street”

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Lulu: "I've gotta crack in my wall upstairs that needs tending."

As I write this, an oil leak off the coast of Louisiana threatens to surpass the Exxon Valdez as the nation’s worst environmental disaster. On April 20, an offshore oil rig exploded. Two days later it collapsed into the gulf, causing three separate leaks that continually spew out an estimated 5000 gallons of oil a day. Thuong Nguyen, a Louisiana shrimp fisherman, interviewed by today's New York Times, wonders how, after having survived Katrina, he will survive this. Another unnatural disaster.

Meanwhile, HBO’s Treme looks back at New Orleans' last engineering catastrophe — the flooding after the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina. Note the irony — last night's episode featured George Bush's famous (or infamous) "we will do everything needed" speech while the present President arrived in New Orleans today to reassure that the government reaction is appropriate to the emergency. The blurring of history, fact, and fiction astounds.

In an opening scene during last night’s “At the Foot of Canal Street,” Big Chief Albert argues with an insurance agent about the coverage for his ruined house. It wasn’t the wind and rain of Katrina that ruined Albert’s house, but the flooding from the breached levees. This was a situation shared by many residents of New Orleans — only about one-third of city residents, affected by Katrina, carried flood insurance. More information on failures of levees and of insurance and other "all Treme all the time" topics can be found on this excellent blog by the Times-Picayune.

To recap: Antoine tries to reconnect his relationship with his sons and his dentures. Khandi continues to search for her brother with Toni's help. Sonny takes a road trip to Houston for "better luck" and is humiliated for his efforts. Davis continues to annoy not only us but Janette too.

The episode is named for the John Boutte song which the songwriter sang himself last night accompanied by Glen David Andrews and his band. The title refers to the "great equalizer" — the cemetery, this particular one at the foot of Canal Street. No matter what class, race, religion, we all end up in the same place — the ground. Suggesting a carpe diem attitude, should we, should the characters, waste their time with anger? This will be a theme threading through the show's many narratives: "You only live once, then you're dead and gone for a long time," Sonny chastises the Texas bouncer who makes an overture of kindness. Yes, life is too short to be so self-righteous, Sonny.

What better writer for this episode, when the post-Katrina flood of crime begins to rise, than George Pelecanos, well-versed in detective fiction and well known from The Wire. It would seem so, but the crime action in this episode is unsophisticated.

Davis is a victim of a con which the viewer can see a mile away so why can't he? In an unsurprising turn of events, Davis' car is robbed and the viewer, who may not know what the term "lagniappe" means, does know that Davis shouldn't have left his instruments in his car. Creighton (he's put some clothes on! He's left the house!) astutely surmises that lagniappe (bonus) doesn't mean what it used to mean.

And speaking of cons, Delmond (Rob Brown) gets set up too, but the joke gets lost in a rush of cameos set in low lighting. New York's own parade of stars flashes by, and we barely get a chance to see who's who. That was Stanley Crouch and… who was that? Nelson George. Thank goodness Bernie Williams didn't make the scene. Sometimes, too many cameos make the television watcher go blind.

 

The episode constructs an effective parallelism between Sonny (in a great performance by Michiel Huisman) and Delmond. Delmond tells his agent, "I am from New Orleans, I don't play New Orleans," while Sonny is desperate to play New Orleans and travels to Houston to do so.

Creighton's character, following up on the introduction of YouTube in a prior episode, travels in his daughter's footsteps and does some swearing up and down the weblog highway. Creighton Bernette is based upon Ashley Morris who used a lot of profanity to bolster his arguments; I don't know much about Mr. Morris and his life and times, but I would debate whether this is effective television for the long haul. It's comically ironic — that a man who studies the best combination of words for a living, an English professor at Tulane, can't find something else to say, in his rage, than "f-in f'ers?" It's funny. For about three minutes.

If this particular story continues, Creighton being a local celebrity for his YouTube rants, we are going to wish that the good professor could use his verbal talents for good, like persuading local Entergy officials to hook up the gas line for one of his favorite restaurants. Venting on YouTube is safe and distant and remains to be seen if it has any immediate, practical use in this fiction. After all, this English professor chose this same adjective to describe the Harry Potter books earlier in the season. We haven't yet seen any of the English professor in Creighton Bernette.

For all my complaining, I was amused by Creighton's reprimand to New York: "To New York. F*** you too. You get attacked by some fundamentalist f***ing a**hole and the federal money comes raining down like rose petals." I was amused, but I imagine there will be New Yorkers who are not. Especially so soon after the thwarted Times Square bombing. Those offended, please know that the original rages were cleaned up for the John Goodman character.

There’s been some chat in webland that the characters of LaDonna and Janette are redundant because both women are trying to fix up and save their businesses. LaDonna runs Gigi's Lounge, a bar that's been in her family for generations and an indicator of her different position in New Orleans society than her dentist husband, who, by the way, has been quite saintly so far. Janette Desautel is the chef-owner of Uptown, a successful restaurant with cuisine and clientele, but now, post- Katrina, she can't get her financial footing.

Last night, the restaurant loses its gas line; in this case Entergy is indeed the bad guy and not the ruse as in Davis' con, and Uptown is forced to shut down for the night. I disagree with the idea that these two characters, Janette and LaDonna, are in similar conflicts. Janette actually occupies a unique place in Treme — she is the only female character we see in the act of creating. Annie, seemingly a musician of great talent, is certainly putting her light under a basket. Janette, if you agree that cooking can be an art form, is constantly composing and improvising, like a jazz musician, in her kitchen. For that, I vote she stays. And speaking of staying, I've overstayed my welcome, but here are some items up for discussion:

Catch the Wire reference when Sonny and his friends are planning the trip to Houston? One of his friends mistakenly calls Sonny's native Amsterdam "Hamsterdam" — a nudge, nudge to the Wire's third season when Police Lt. Bunny Colvin tried to contain crime to a no-rules neighborhood. Steve Earle's appearance as a street musician (along with his son Justin Townes Earle) is also a tie back to The Wire. Steve sang "Way Down in the Hole" – The Wire's iconic theme. He was also Bubble's sponsor at AA/NA. He maintains the same hairstyle.

Speaking of Sonny, there is some speculation that the Sonny/Annie story will go the way of the true-life murder of Addie Hall, New Orleans street musician, by her boyfriend. I certainly hope Annie's story doesn't go there, but every time the character gets an offer she can't refuse (like a studio gig through Steve Earle), she does refuse, and I get more nervous for her.

Jim True-Frost's cameo turned out to be an appearance as Delmond's agent who wants Delmond to seize the day — the day created by Katrina. Like Annie, Delmond is turning down perfectly good jobs in a most nonsensical manner, but that could be the starving artist in me.

Another Wire reference: Keevon White (Anwan Glover), the Not-David Brooks, is uncharacteristically talkative in his semi-confession, but perhaps that's just the Slim Charles in him.

Much of the episode travels outside of New Orleans: Brooklyn, Baton Rouge, Houston. What happens when the show travels to Portland where I hear "they clap on the one and the three" — those poor, poor people!

Please, can Toni get some backbone in this marriage?! After a long day of interviewing murderers, her husband in the all day bathrobe greets her, she smiles, shrugs, and hangs tinsel like it's 1956. This is a waste of Melissa Leo.

Last week, I got Trombone Shorty’s given name wrong. Naming his brother instead, the error was an indication of just how much I need to learn about this foreign culture into which Simon and Overmyer dropped us. As Dave Walker of the Times-Picayune says, there is "a density of local references" demanding an "almost encyclopedic reference." I need all the help I can get when putting together these columns, writing from New York, a galaxy far, far away from post-Katrina New Orleans and where federal money floats down like rose petals.

President Obama photo by Associated Press

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • Max

    Becoming less and less impressed with this show. It’s pretentious, posturing is what it is. People have said it feels “authentic”..perhaps the scenery and music but other than that it feels completely false and trite. The writing is heavy handed and lacks any semblance of subtlety. It’s constantly pushing this “New Orleans is holier than thou” vibe that really gets on my nerves.

    Also, Davis is possibly my least favourite character in the history of characters. Just awful, awful. Annoying, childish, immature, pretentious, fake, untalented (strippers in my neighborhood? really? you’re supposed to be a musician?)…he’s a loser in every way. His latest tryst in the bar where he starts to RAP of all things is even worse than his lame guitar song. Legalize pot to pay to fill pot holes? And then he freaks out and looks for the nearest pen as if these lyrics were some sent from above work of genius. We then see a montage of him working all night to make his lame song, which I think we are supposed to be impressed by.

    John Goodman’s character is similarly one note and bland. Full of righteous anger that is supposed to impress us, yet really he’s just a blowhard with no solutions and no insight, just a lot of oh so self righteous anger that, like I said, seems designed to impress us but comes off as more empty posturing.

  • doctorj2u

    Max,
    The things you hate the most are the most New Orleans of all. If you don’t get it, you never will. Don’t waste your time. Time to watch another show for you. Great job David Simon. As a native New Orleanian, born and raised, I love the show. Thank you!

  • Max

    Oh, I don’t get it huh? What’s not to get it? A bunch of pretentious faux-artsy stuck ups vying to be the coolest and most scene of all? They have those in New York too, they are called hipsters, and everyone hates them.

    Always thought of New Orleans as a place full of relaxed, friendly down to earth people. I guess I was wrong. Or maybe its just the whiteys because Antoine, Albert and all those other black characters don’t seem to exhibit that vibe of trying so hard to be “New Orleans”… its only the white ones like Davis, Sonny, and Creighton that do that. Probably because they are so insecure due to the fact they are not really “New Orleans” and are infact poseurs.

  • Geoff

    My issue with Treme is that it is missing what made the Wire and Generation Kill so appealing for me: all kinds of people, with all kinds of competencies. Some cops and soldiers were brilliant, some were terrible. Some had serious issues, some didn’t. But in Treme, everyone is the best (insert job here.) The best trombone player, the best chef, the smartest professor. Sure their personal lives vary, but they are always supposed to be great, capable people and it’s kind of boring to watch. Perhaps it is because we are entering so many different fields, we only see the brilliant protagonist before we move on. And we lose all the delicious conflict watching the protagonist establish themself as great. Instead, we are simply told they are great in words by their friends, and it rings false. Perhaps a second reason is that their adversaries are usually either faceless organizations like FEMA or outsiders. God forbid one of their colleagues, from NOLA of all places, might be making their lives difficult. My least favourite people are usually people who do my job, but do it badly and make my job harder. I can’t imagine it’s any different in New Orleans.

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

    Hi Geoff: I understand completely what you are saying about the dimensionality of Treme’s characters. Or lack thereof. Generation Kill, which I adored even though I couldn’t tell anyone apart under their camo and helmets, came to David Simon and Ed Burns with fully formed characters from Evan Wright’s book. The Wire started with a smaller cast (I think, it’s been awhile), focusing on McNulty and then spiraling out to add characters. Baltimore was also a world that Simon and Burns knew very well. New Orleans not so much, at least for DS. Simon admits that this is a “love letter” to NOLA, and that pretty much is how the show comes across. Hopefully the characters become more nuanced. Thank you everyone for commenting – there are justified criticisms here and interesting discussion.