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Saturday, 5 of December of 2020

Treme – “Do You Know What It Means”

“That’ll work.”

A funeral procession in Treme.

Sending a man home.

How difficult it must be for some to watch a show like Treme and not be predisposed to affectation and nostalgia, maybe even still brewing rage for allowing what happened in New Orleans to occur. Years later, we as a country are still picking New Orleans as the underdog, rooting for them to win and rise from devastation, a destruction that is to the popular consciousness, a man-made disaster catalyzed by nature. Some four and a half years later, the country still champions the city as a site that deserves only the highest accolades for its perseverance, thus far represented by beating the favored Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.

Trite as the venue of this nation’s full-fledged support may be (at least in comparison to the disaster), there is a certain fondness people look upon New Orleans with, pity in a lot of ways. This is a media-saturated culture and it absorbed just about as much in pictures, footage, audio, and overwrought narrative as it could take on. New Orleans rose to become a beacon of hope for every baby step it took from the wreckage was something to celebrate and coo about as if the city was an infant afflicted with rickets. Each wobble elicited a “good for them” from pasty, distant middle America.

I am not one of those people.

My New Orleans intelligence is extremely limited. Before the storm, I heard very little out of the city unless it was football season or Lent. My mental picture was only of Bourbon Street, mostly night shots from the B-roll of the occasional night game at the Superdome, my only viewing of Girls Gone Wild (still the only media property I’ve ever seen that somehow found a way to make boobs boring), and vague memories of when The Real World was there. To me, New Orleans was just the weird little city at the end of the Mississippi that was good to know about for trivia (French laws, parishes, etc) and it kind of remained that way even after the storm. Sure, I’d see commercials capitalizing on the tragedy and say, “Well, that’s nice of Tide to send out a truck of washing machines for everyone.” But my image of New Orleans was just like everyone else’s that isn’t terribly familiar with the city: wrecked and empty. I think I knew people still lived there but my mind’s eye only really saw a wet ghost town. Even so, it never really gained any kind of importance in my mind.

So I was afraid with Treme that I would be subject to that nostalgia from those that lived there, a bemoaning of what was lost and a cry for help from Hollywood to repair the town. In an interview with GQ, Eric Overmyer commented about how they wanted to make a show about New Orleans before the storm even hit and suffered heavy disappointment after Katrina when he knew the town would never be the same again. They decided to build a show around what happened afterward and I felt like I knew what was coming: a series of Braveheart-like speeches about the spirit of the city and how they will rise again. In my holster was a, “They already made that one. It’s called Gone with the Wind.” But that’s not what the show is about.

We’re introduced to a lot of people and a lot of things in this pilot that clocks in at over 70 minutes but I’m going to boil them down to four main stories: “Be Able to Recall”, Moving On, Steve Zahn Being a Douche, and Antoine Baptiste Takes Us on a Tour of New Orleans.

“Be Able to Recall” So we have “Remember the Alamo” and “Never Forget (9/11)” but is there a phrase for us to continue to remember what happened in New Orleans? Representing those that would never let us forget are Creighton Bernette (played by John Goodman), who is the mouthpiece for all the wild rumors and musings post-Katrina, and his wife Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), a lawyer (I think?) who is chasing after the whereabouts of a man named “Damo” (David Maurice). Creighton and Toni are a couple that solidly believe in New Orleans although I get a feeling of disconnect from them. They have a bit of affluence, living in Baton Rouge, and, mostly, escaping a lot of the brunt the city itself felt. This may be why Creighton overcompensates with his extreme bouts of rage in the face of lies about his city. They obviously love the place but aren’t as interwoven as everyone else in the story. Toni spends most of the episode on Damo’s trail, trying to find more information on why he disappeared and if he made it out of the storm. As she digs deeper, she runs into more roadblocks and is frustrated by the lack of cooperation in her investigation. Really, by comparison, they live the good life, sitting far away from the city and able to experience the tragedy from a safe distance.

Moving On On the other had, we have Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a Mardi Gras Indian Chief that is coming home after being exiled in Houston. His daughter is against the idea of him returning to stay, especially since Albert is willing to live in waterless squalor to do it. She calls her brother Delmond (a successful jazz musician on the East Coast played by Rob Brown) to come down and talk some sense into him but one icy stare from Dad turns Delmond into a complicit party to what people might consider Albert’s flawed plan to resurrect the culture in New Orleans. In a part of the town devastated by the storm, Albert’s plan of just being present and trying to convince others to join his fight to hold on to a city that might be slipping away might be a little passive but plays great on television. Clarke Peters sells Albert’s importance. He is not chief because he bought some feathers. He rocks that suit and you feel confident that, if given the opportunity, New Orleans will bounce back on his shoulders.

In mid-conversation, Davis sees Tower Records closing.

Speaking from experience, he advises Steve Zahn that he shouldn’t keep holding on.

Steve Zahn Being a Douche And then there’s Davis. Davis is a DJ at the “best alternative station in the best music city in the country.” He’s broke (like everyone else that’s not a Bernette) and is not afraid to be a dbag to everyone. Sometimes he pals around with his friend from Simply Red. Sometimes he’s a douche all by himself. Just an abrasive guy trying to make it in New Orleans. He plays Mystikal out his window to his gardening neighbors just to do it apparently. He insists on taking his band’s CDs out of a liquidating Tower Records. He opens a $350 bottle of wine at his sort-of girlfriend’s restaurant with no plans to pay outside of bartering (payment being something he lifted from Tower Records because it was “karmatically” his). He also feels a little out of place in New Orleans but in a different way than the Bernettes. Where Creighton and Toni feign an interest in the town, Davis is a New Orleans groupie. He is a fan of the city and everything it has to offer, especially the music. To him, the music is the blood of this city and he loves to experience it, whether it’s the first Second Line since the storm or listening to a guy named Kermit play the trumpet in front of a packed club (with Elvis Costello in attendance). While he might not be as much of the fabric of the city as others, he understands the city in a way few people do. To that end, he has the line that I think exemplifies the overall mood for the show: “I will have satisfaction.”

He explains it early on as a quote that people say just before a duel, right before you “slap that bitch with a glove.” Treme isn’t about Poor Poor New Orleans. It was knocked to the ground but was never completely out of it. The feeling of the show isn’t about how destroyed the town is but how New Orleans might be the only place that could have survived such a thing. Sure, other cities have burned to the ground and have been hit by any number of natural or man-made occurrences. Sometimes it defines them. This show seems to indicate that Katrina, in the end, will not define New Orleans and it is because of its vibrance, history, and culture that refuses to quit. When Davis is shoved to the ground (although, to be fair, he kind of deserved it) and stares up saying, “I will have satisfaction,” you get the feeling that he’s speaking on behalf of the town, too. They’re not going down without a fight.

Antoine Baptiste Takes Us on a Tour of New Orleans It is, in fact, the culture of this town that keeps it alive and nothing is more important (within the scope of Treme at least) than music, more specifically jazz and the brass band music of the parade. Antoine Baptiste is a trombone player that gets around by stiffing cab drivers to get to gigs. While I find most of the characters engaging (except for the Bernettes), Antoine in this pilot is the most interesting. He’s a normal guy, a struggling musician, suffering a connection with his ex-wife, separation from his children, a town trying to get back on its feet, trying to get back on his own feet, and yet he is continually part of the tapestry of New Orleans, a tree in the forest of New Orleans symbology. He shows up late to the second line, but is an integral part (the second line even conveniently ends at his ex-wife’s (Ladonna, played by Khandi Alexander) bar. He gets a gig playing behind Kermit’s band, the great jazz band that would normally serve as background New Orleans flavor in any other capacity. Most striking, however, is the funeral at the end of the episode. Antoine shows up in Treme to stand in for a trombone player that couldn’t make it and, although the attention is on him for a moment, he is quickly overshadowed by the ceremony of a jazz funeral. Despite being surrounded by wreckage, the tradition still carries on.

The point this show tries to drive home is that Katrina, though monumentally expensive, is a blip on the radar for a place so rich in tradition and culture. What if this storm had hit Birmingham, Alabama, the way it hit New Orleans? Would Birmingham be able to bounce back the way New Orleans is able to? This show says no. It is the insistence that the brass band will play on in the streets of the neighborhoods and parishes of New Orleans no matter what happens. Because New Orleans, long ago, transcended the shackles of its construction. In that riddle where you ask if a boat is still the same if you replace all its pieces, the people of this city would insist that it is the same boat because the same people live in it. And I can get on board with that.

I was afraid of getting something treacly and overdramatic. While I’m not really sure where the series is going (the Damo storyline is really the only one with much intrigue), the characters are good enough that I want to stick around and, although the possibility of a saccharine love letter to the town is still in the cards, I hope the show-runners resist the temptation and construct a narrative different from the simple ones the media fed us in the years after Katrina. What they present here is something more complicated where the town never really died in the way they would have us believe. It will have its satisfaction. Wrested from the legendary, Hall of Fame hands of Peyton Manning.

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