Wendell Pierce trying to cheat a cab driver can only mean one thing: It’s time for another season of Treme, David Simon’s sprawling tapestry of post-Katrina New Orleans and what it means for a whole city to put itself together after falling apart. We’re now 25 months out from Katrina, which makes this late September of 2007, and a cautious ease seems to have settled back over New Orleans. Sure, a handful of musicians get arrested for playing music in Treme—at least one of them, Antoine, as much for his bad attitude as any noise violations—but by episode’s end the police have resumed protecting and serving both the laws and the traditions of New Orleans. There’s trouble aplenty, but the crises seem to have abated. For now. In this show there’s always that qualifier.
But for most of our cast of characters, life has improved. Annie is moving forward with her career as a performer and songwriter. She has gigs and a small but appreciative audience (Davis among them), even if her band doesn’t have a name yet. She’s good, too, and she knows it. When Davis comes home from an overnight shift she’s there to greet him, too jazzed to sleep. Davis doesn’t seem to mind, either. The two seemed to have settled into a happy, stable couplehood, a development that would have looked unlikely at the show’s beginning.
Davis has dreams of his own, too: A Katrina-themed New Orleans R&B opera starring Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. How serious is he? Serious enough to have “Frogman” Henry over to the house to go through some tracks, and to promote it on the air. And, most tellingly of all, he’s serious enough to seek employment to make it happen, embarking on work as a tour guide of New Orleans’ musical sites. That’s a funny sequence, but a telling one, too. The show didn’t make up the detail about J&M Studios, which is now a laundromat. And you really couldn’t visit Congo Square for years after Katrina. (Armstrong Park has since reopened.) For all New Orleans’ long history, many of the musical landmarks have been lost. Davis knew that going in. Did he intentionally set his tour up as a willfully perverse traipse to sites that have disappeared as a jab at the tourists? It doesn’t seem out of character, but he does seem genuinely surprised at their disappointment.
That sequence rhymes nicely with Nelson’s progress this episode, which is at least tangentially tied, or about to be, to the building of a National Jazz Center, “a chance,” his potential partner tells him, “to monetize the culture down here in a very smart, civic way.” (So long, of course, as Oliver Thomas keeps his mouth shut about who got paid to do what.) If it can’t be preserved, at least it can be monetized. One thing I like about this show’s portrayal of Nelson and his gang is the way they’re ambitious and avaricious, but not cynical. They seem to honestly believe that they can do good while lining their own pockets. It treats their point of view matter-of-factly without any villainous shadings, even as the plot reveals them as being firmly on the wrong side of what’s right and wrong. They’re the bad guys, sure, but they don’t know it. And there’s a chance they might come to see the light. (There’s also a chance that they’re simply an embodiment of how things work, although maybe that’s a truly cynical point of view.)
Their plot and Davis’ tour aren’t the parts of the show dealing with issues of authenticity, either. Delmond’s winning acclaim for his fusion of jazz and Mardi Gras musical traditions—maybe not from Wynton Marsalis, but from most quarters—but is it the right kind of praise? Delmond’s manager James thinks he’s overthinking his success, saying “So, now it’s not enough to get a good review, you need the reviewer to actually understand the work?” (Hard to hear that line without thinking of David Simon’s tussles with critics, but let’s just leave that alone.) His urbane acquaintances, meanwhile, think he’s exploring a “recondite Native American motif” of his own invention. It’s hard to win: Jazz purists turn up their nose, the Indians feel exploited, and too many of the fans seem to like it because they don’t know enough to do the same.
Maybe the answer is to let the music speak for itself, as Albert does when he asks his co-workers to turn it up and laughs off their complaints that he’s “loco.” We don’t see that much of Albert this episode, but what we see suggests a fair amount of change between seasons. There’s the cornrows, for starters, but also a not-so-healthy-sounding cough. There’s the attitude, too. Never one to suffer bullshit, he seems more confident than ever, talking about breaking “fresh fucking ground” in a way that makes Delmond smile. Delmond’s identity had previously seemed torn between New York and New Orleans, and even if he’s now dividing his time between the two there’s not much question where his loyalty lies.
The same can’t be said of Janette, who’s settled into a groove of going back to New Orleans when she has to but otherwise living her life in New York. That includes exclusive, chefs-only dinners and the teasing respect of David Chang. It also includes a mysterious visitor (in the form of Sam Robards) whom Chang tells her has come to make her a star back home. She resists, at least for now, in a groove she doesn’t yet want to give up.
In fact, most of the characters appear to be on the cusp of change they’re either rushing to embrace or putting off as long as they can. As Toni befriends an out-of-town reporter, her daughter has started dating a boyfriend she’s reluctant to bring home to her mom, no doubt in part because he’s significantly older than she is. (I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that: Sofia looks at him admiringly outside the coffee shop but it never seemed clear they were dating. Later they’re quite couple-y. I couldn’t quite tell if the episode was playing it ambiguously or if Sofia was clearly dating well outside her age group.) Meanwhile, Sonny can’t get any privacy with Lynn, whose overprotective father remains firmly in the picture and LaDonna, back in New Orleans, can’t get out of her husband’s family’s home fast enough.
Khandi Alexander’s particularly good playing the belligerent houseguest, but some of the best moments this week belong to the quieter work of David Morse as Terry. Terry spends much of the episode visiting Indianapolis, and feeling a bit lost amidst the Midwestern-ness of it all. “How’s the sorghum coming in?” he quips at his ex-wife. It’s a bit of Big Easy snobbery—and to put a painting of a cow up on the wall of his ex-wife’s house is really a bit much—but it’s not hard to see how Terry could feel ill-at-ease amongst all that suburban quiet. When you’re used to a town where an everyday sight includes watching a guy in a jester’s costume a eat sandwich before casually biking off into the night, it’s hard to feel at home in a city so aggressively resistant to weirdness. “It’s a place like any other,” his ex-wife says of Indianapolis. It’s clear that much of Terry’s attraction to New Orleans comes from the fact that those words do not apply.
“Knock With Me—Rock With Me” made it feel good to be back in the New Orleans of Treme. There’s a lot of expository business to take care of here as we catch up with everyone, so much so that the plotting sometimes overwhelmed most other elements. And, for all that, it mostly nudges characters in the directions they’ll be traveling this season. But it also features everything that makes Treme work from the music to the local customs (“How ’bout them Aints?”) to the character work. It’s a promising start to a series that’s already established a habit of delivering on its promises.
- If you’re not familiar with the work of Clarence “Frogman” Henry or know only “Ain’t Got No Home,” it pays to go deeper into his catalog.
- Priceless moments: Rob Brown’s Clarke Peters impression.
- “Ladonna will choke a bitch!” Does anyone doubt that?
- How are we feeling about Sonny? Still hate him? I started to come around and root for his redemption at the end of last season, but his plot is the one I have the hardest time caring about. (Although if it keeps delving into the particulars of Vietnamese culture in Louisiana, it could get more interesting.)
- If you’re reading this, I’m going to guess that you, like me, are one of the show’s true believers. When I talk to others about this show, I encounter everything from indifference to hostility and I’m never quite sure why. Treme—at least so far—is a satisfying drama filled with richly developed characters and the most fully realized depiction of a single place I’ve ever seen on television. Every time I have to defend it feels bizarre. Anyone else know that feeling? (Just wanted to get that out of the way at the top of this season so we could not talk about it the rest of the year.)