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TV Review: Treme – “Shallow Water, Oh Mama”

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This is going to a short review of Treme’s sixth episode, "Shallow Water, Oh Mama," because nothing much happened.

It has been a trend so far on Treme to bring on a local NOLA writer to do the episode’s teleplay. Last week’s "Shame, Shame, Shame" was written by Lolis Eric Elie who, amidst many other accomplishments, is a food writer and so we see lots of delicious restaurant scenes. This week on "Shallow Water," Tom Piazza shares the writing work with David Simon and Eric Overmyer and is credited with the teleplay. Piazza, like Elie, had no television writing experience. Bringing in local writing talent is adding authenticity, but there might be a problem, Houston.

Is Treme losing narrative pacing in its endeavor for authenticity?

I love the music, the locale, the characterizations (mostly), but I do not love these stories. These are stories of paralysis; for the most part, they are proving to be shallow stories, oh mama, and frankly it doesn’t make for great television. In other words, Treme is becoming more like the "Zzzzz" train to me.

I don’t need Smoke Monsters in all my television shows; I am perfectly happy to spend quiet time with an unhappy Annie and her cafe au lait and beignet in the Cafe du Monde, but it can’t all be like that. Depressed people — “ain’t we all,” commiserates Antoine — should be cared about and cared for, but a general despondency does not make for exciting storytelling. It may be authentic; it may be real, and viewers were warned, don’t come to Treme looking for The Wire. Fair enough, but we should be able to come to Treme expecting compelling television. Now, more than halfway through the first season’s ten episodes, the characters’ immobility is less than compelling.

"Shallow Water, Oh Mama" is a Mardi Gras Indian chant. It briefly appeared at the end of episode two with only Big Chief Albert and George in attendance at practice. This time around, more people show for Albert's practice, and New Orleans seems in early physical restoration: the Musicians' Clinic, Big Chief’s bar, the Bernettes’ lovely front porch, the Carnivale Ball, and the Krewe du Vieux parade, but the characters stall in their individual journeys toward restoration and renewal.

Crey Bernette complains that he has moved from “serious novelist to cartoon” but we haven’t seen any of that. We’ve only seen the cartoon.

Delmond (Rob Brown, above) has been a cipher so far. The character’s story is in tension between the traditional and the progressive, between the world of his father, Big Chief Albert, and the world of New York City jazz, but the actor’s immobile face does not indicate any of this conflict. Or if it does, it may be too deep in the shadows to see. More complaints on this to follow.

Antoine looks for gigs. Antoinette looks for the missing Daymo Brooks while busy raising two children, daughter Sofia and husband Creighton.

Big Chief is occupied by building his Indian costume. He makes no progress in finding housing for his gang, but does manage to continually disappoint his children.

The usually vibrant Khandi Alexander was mostly M.I.A. (which could be part of the episode's problem). She has a short scene with her mother in a health clinic where, thematically consistent, they are helpless without their medical information, long gone in Katrina.

Annie is locked in a destructive relationship with Sonny, a relationship the audience recognized for what it was since episode one. This is what I mean by paralysis and non-narrative. We are not taking a journey with Annie. We were at the end of this, foresaw the end of this, from the beginning (but hopefully not copying the real-life end of that poor girl, Addie Hall).

Looking to another couple, Janette and Jacques have the most cogent plotline, but I fear it has come to an end. Janette fails to keep her restaurant going, and those scenes of defeat are among the most successful of the episode. In a poignant moment of realization that she cannot continue, Janette buries her face in her hands, and Jacques, her sous chef, makes a slight movement to comfort her. It was such a sweet, nuanced moment, and it makes me despair that the closing of Desautel’s will push these two characters to the borders of the story further. Packing up her knife, Janette takes a long last look at Desautel’s, perhaps realizing that blueberry mojitos are not a good idea, and leaves the building. I do hope she comes back, and I recognize my involvement in this particular story is contradictory to the argument at hand.

In the beginning of the series, I was afraid that the music would stall the momentum of the show. That fear was wholly unfounded; the music has absolutely contributed to each episode’s success, more so than any particular character's narrative arc. Case in point: when the sound is turned down on the televised city council forum and we can only hear Coco Robicheaux singing in the back of the bar. The attention to music and its detail has proven surprisingly absorbing within the framework of serialized drama. It is the story between the songs that needs some improvement.

I’m in this for the long road. I understand that the series is trying to recreate real people stuck in real situations, post-Katrina, but the television viewer in me hopes that there is more story to next week’s episode, "Smoke My Peace Pipe," than Desiree washing Antoine’s tuxedo.

I must leave; I need to reform the Napoleonic Code, but before I go, here are some items up for discussion:

Can the John Goodman character become any more insufferable? Creighton Bernette goes from whining that the publishing company will want its advance back on an overdue book to whining when the company asks for the book to become more contemporary. He then ridicules his agent for being interested in his YouTube rants: “I’m not trying to be the spokesman for the city.” What are these YouTube rants for then?

Notice the parallelism here between Crey Bernette not wanting to be a spokesman and Davis’s announcement that, if elected, he will not serve. Both characters want to be agents of change but also want to limit their personal responsibility — stasis!

It was delightful to see Talia Balsam as Carla the literary agent, all the way from 1963 New York City, and Elizabeth Ashley, a true Tennessee Williams actress, as Davis’s Aunt Mimi. Ashley was not recognizable behind the sunglasses, hair, and jewelry, but that voice was.

Melissa Leo has a nice Columbo moment to make headway on her case, but I fail to see why, by not getting the ADA to help her file a joint motion, she now no longer thinks it's offensive for her 15-year-old daughter to dress up as a sperm.

There are many moments where lighting indicates character instead of letting storytelling do it. Bands of light across Clarke Peters' eyes indicate rage. Shadows across Sonny’s face symbolize what… darkness, I guess. Bright sunlight on Davis’s campaign parade sanitizes the misguided attempt because “sunlight is the best antiseptic.”

Halfway through the series, I’m just hoping someone comes along and hits Davis again. Not Annie. Davis.

For an insight and explanation into Treme’s music, I insist you visit The Sound of Treme blog. The blogger is a Tulane music professor and knows of what he speaks!

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • Max

    I’ll be honest, I shut this one off half way through. I keep watching because I want to give it another chance but the fact is, I don’t care about any of these characters really. It’s poorly written with zero narrative pacing. Just a bunch of slow rambling scenes, ZERO tension. I’ve never seen a piece of dramatic tv/film with such a total lack of any dramatic tension. It makes it slow, boring, dull… a chore to watch.

    Only the music scenes are worth anything.

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

    Hi Max:

    Judging from anecdotal evidence, NOLA residents obsess over the show, jazz lovers watch for the music and skip over the narrative (as you do), and the rest of the viewership are wandering away. This truly is a love letter to NOLA as Simon says, and the rest of us aren’t invited to read. Thanks for the feedback.

  • doctorj2u

    Kate,
    You are invited, it will just take effort on your part to understand a culture different from the one you inhabit. Try it. You may enjoy yourself.

  • From Nola

    The Show is Terrible!!!!
    Many people from New Orleans agree that the show is boring and does not represent New Orleans. The majority of the music you hear is not Jazz . It’s traditional New Orleans Music.
    Most Jazz musicians perform in other cities . There are no real Jazz clubs in the city. This was true Pre and certainly worst post Katrina.

    Many musicians struggle to make a living in NOLA , especially professional musicians.

    The series does not address the true complexities of the city and continues to neglect the African American Middle class.

    The stories are not true stories of New Orleans and certainly not of TREME.

    There is no pacing and a plot. Just a lot of entertainment.
    There are a lot of serious musicians who are tossed aside or forced to become a part of the vast sea of Entertainers . No real artistry , just perfect for a bar where you casually listen and eat a good meal.