Treme: The Complete First Season

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday March 30, 2011

Treme: The Complete First Season

The first season of HBO's fine drama Treme is now available on DVD. All ten season one episodes are present and accounted for, including the extra-long series premiere and season finale. The series is set a few months after Hurricane Katrina, and re-creates the wreckage of the city's devastated neighborhoods, including the Treme--an area that, we learn from the special features, was America's first "free people of color neighborhood," and which continues to serve as a cultural crux.

Treme may be the nexus for the series, but the show is not insular or artificially bubbled off. As with his earlier HBO series, the Baltimore-centered The Wire, creator David Simon, together with co-creator Eric Overmyer, spins a wide-ranging story that encompasses multiple facets of the city's life. Its street musicians are portrayed by young performers Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli), who have a troubled artistic partnership and even more problematic romantic relationship; its literary life depicted, with physical and intellectual might, by Tulane professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman).

As with The Wire, Simon has a fascination with the city's police. He doesn't address this by taking us deep into the ranks of the New Orleans PD--though there is a sympathetic officer on hand--but rather by following a few cases taken on by Creighton's lawyer wife, Toni (Melissa Leo, a veteran of Homicide: Life on the Street and recent Oscar winner for her role in The Fighter). The New Orleans cops are depicted as a surly blue wall sprouting knuckles and brawls at the drop of a hat or the tap of a trombone; recent headlines about the police in that city being investigated for corruption seem torn from this series, rather than the other way around.

Among other cases, Toni spends much of Season One trying to help locate the missing brother of bar owner Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander, who is deliciously fierce in the role). Ladonna's brother disappeared into the criminal justice system on the day of Hurricane Katrina. Tracking him down means descending into a labyrinth of indifference, hostility, and negligence that is shocking to behold.

Ladonna's ex-husband, Antoine Batiste (New Orleans native and The Wire star Wendell Pierce) is a deeply flawed musician who is living the life, warts and all: he has a new girlfriend and a new baby to support, but he's barely scraping by, stitching a living together playing in clubs, at concerts, and in the city's famous "second lines." (It doesn't help that he's a gambler, or that he chases after pretty girls on the side His point-blank lies about these matters are delivered coolly--and received with more than a hint of skepticism.)

Another of Toni's clients is Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn at his best), who would also like to make a living as a musician--however threadbare such a living might be--but who can't quite manage it. He gets by teaching piano (to Toni and Creighton's daughter), working on and off as a disc jockey, taking the occasional service job, and borrowing money from everyone who crosses his path. Davis serves as a comic foil, but also as a flip-side to Creighton's encyclopedic knowledge of the city's history: Davis is intimate with the musical life of New Orleans from the inside out, chatting up local legends and brushing up against high-profile visitors like Elvis Costello.

McAlary's semi-regular girlfriend is a struggling chef named Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), whose problems in the wake of the storm are manifold. Though the residents of New Orleans are desperate to put the disaster behind them with food and music, her restaurant faces an uphill battle: The city's infrastructure is not yet in full working order, and the insurance money has yet to arrive. It's impossible to keep her business alive--and next to impossible to nurture her dreams of becoming a star chef.

Janette's troubles and ambitions are reflected in those of Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, another vet from The Wire) who also has a business to resurrect. But his priorities are a little different: Albert's first order of business is to gather up the members of his New Orleans Indian tribe in time for a major annual celebration involving elaborate feathered costumes. (When, early on, we see Albert come dancing out of the night's shadows in a bright yellow suit of massive feathers, he's applauded as being "pretty." This is the local compliment, and it's a high one. To the rest of us, the costumes--Albert follows up his yellow creation with a spectacular purple one--far surpass any notion of "pretty." The costumes are absolutely stupefying.)

Putting the tribe back together entails a parallel challenge: putting his own family back together. Son Delmond (Rob Brown) is proud of his Indian heritage, but prefers the music and the milieu of the itinerant jazz performer's life.

The season one DVD set consists of four discs, with special features being mostly relegated to the fourth disc except for the episode commentaries, which are priceless founts of information. The series is as true to the culture and the language of the streets of New Orleans as The Wire was to the city of Baltimore; you don't need a guidebook to follow the story lines, but the episode commentary--and especially the separate music commentary--fill out the viewing experience. This is a musically rich series, as reliant on and respectful toward the songs and the performers as toward the scripts, and a treat to the ears as much as to the sensibility for good story telling.

The city's elements--its middle class, its poor, its artists and its public servants--mingle, clash, and shed sparks in Treme. This is a portrait of a living, wounded place and its resilient people. "Won't Bow," the slogan on the DVD boxed set declares; "Don't Know How." As the final episode ends, Bruce Springsteen's voice growls in song that this is a city that will not drown, not in storm waters, nor in troubles and turmoil of any sort. Not all of the characters make it through the entire season, and there are some threads left dangling for season two to pick up, but Treme's first year is remarkable self-contained and satisfying. Perhaps David Simon was playing it safe after the year-to-year travails of The Wire, which was always on the verge of cancellation despite its excellence. (HBO, to its everlasting credit, stood by that series.) To be sure, the final episode feels like a completion--all the more so because it features a flashback to the night of the storm itself.

But fret not. Season Two is on its way. Its 11 episodes will start to air in April. Treme is essential viewing, and the season one DVD set is a good way to brush up--or to become introduced--to this vibrant celebration of a great American city.

Special Features include:

- Season Episode Index
- In-episode information about the music
- Episode commentary
- Music commentary
- Featurettes

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.