Play for that Money

This summer will mark the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and by then, David Simon‘s newest series, Treme will have come to  close.  Its twenty episodes will serve as a fitting reminder of the devastation that that storm, and the ensuing floods, wrought on countless lives, a devastation that continues to plague many lives even today.  Perhaps the series will return the tragedy to our public consciousness and remind us of the vulnerability of the poor and marginalized in our own communities…for those of us lucky enough to actually watch it that is.

Treme takes place in the titular New Orleans neighborhood, one steeped in musical history and heritage.  It begins three months after Katrina and follows a host of characters who have either returned or never left, who struggle to re-build homes, lives, and relationships.  The main characters include a struggling trombone player, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), who struggles to find the next music gig, and his ex-wife Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), who desperately searches for a lost brother who may or may not have been in the custody of the state when Katrina hit.  She is represented by Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), a lawyer who seems to take on every down-trodden New Orleanian’s case.  Toni is married to Creighton (John Goodman), an English professor at Tulane University, who, rather than working on his next novel, discovers YouTube and records a series of political rants against the federal, state, and local governments.  Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is a contractor whose children do not equally share his love of New Orleans and its traditions.  Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) is an accomplished chef who, due to the effects of Katrina on her home and business, struggles to keep her restaurant up and running.  She is a friend-with-benefits with Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), and aspiring musician/politician who is passionate about New Orleans and his neighborhood but cannot seem to find a way to channel that passion into something truly productive.  Despite these numerous stories being played out in each episode, the series never feels to crowded and Simon and his team manage to give every story its due.

Clark Peters as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux.

Once again, David Simon has managed to take a specific/particular time and place and unlock its universal appeal.  His stinging criticism of incompetent responses to the storm is a vital reminder of governmental corruption that hurts the least of these the most.  At the same time, Treme never ceases to be compelling drama.  From the opening scene, we are thrust into a world with its own language, customs, tradition, and music.  Yet any foreignness is quickly eradicated by familiarity with the characters’ experiences of corruption, grief, loss, and anger.  Serial television is one of the more effective venues that Katrina demands for creative and prophetic reflection. In my review of A.D. last year, I pointed out that the graphic novel form allowed us to linger over images that newscasts often sped through.  The same could be said of a television series, although it does…or can do…much more.  Here, Simon and his writers reveal levels of complexity that we could never imagine without having endured the tragedy or knowing those who did.  Treme has a convincing documentary feel to it, even as some of the images on the screen seem simply too horrific or insane to be true.  Perhaps the strongest point of the series, and of the region itself, is the juxtaposition of grief and celebration symbolized perfectly by the way in which Antoine moves from playing in a celebratory parade to a funeral in the span of the first episode.  In each case, he tells his fellow players, “Play for that money boys!”

Kim Dickens as chef Janette Desautel.

My only problem with Treme, like The Wire, is less a problem with the series themselves than the state of television in general.  I’m not (re)inventing the wheel in my comments here, but it’s frustrating that Treme can’t air on network or cable channels.  Of course, it really has no place there given its requisite graphic content, but its HBO home severely limits the number of people who can and should see it.  As such, it contributes to a hierarchical viewership that is directly antithetical to Simon’s more populist leanings.  Moreover, HBO’s unwillingness to stream episodes or sell them via iTunes, for example, only exacerbates the problem.  On the other hand, the series’ website is phenomenal, providing information about the local musicians featured each week and links to download the music from each episode.  I don’t have HBO and have been forced to undertake more nefarious measures to watch it.  Somehow, in a show where most of the characters hustle to get by, perhaps this is appropriate after all.

Treme airs on HBO on Sunday nights at 10 and includes coarse language and disturbing content.