Last thing’s first: In an otherwise stellar episode, the final scene of tonight’s Treme, where a busload of tourists intrudes on a ritual to honor one of Katrina’s tragically neglected, sticks in my craw a bit. Arriving right on the heels of last week’s subplot about the freshly scrubbed, out-of-place Wisconsinites and their odyssey through “real New Orleans,” I’m worried the show has gone beyond merely reflecting the prickly attitudes of some NOLA natives and adopted them itself. That’s not to say those attitudes are unfounded: The intrusion of photo-snapping tourists on a scene of that gravity borders on the obscene—something the driver eventually acknowledges—and the neglect shown to the city before and after Katrina was something worse. And, of course, there are negative consequences to having outsiders descend on the city that Treme does address, must address, and addresses with a lot of insight.
At the same time, I think the show could stand to be a bit more charitable to outsiders. It’s a natural impulse for people to bear witness to tragedy. It’s also natural for them to show compassion and help where they can, even if they cannot begin to fathom what makes this great and ornery city tick. (And perhaps unwittingly piss off the locals as a result.) Great as David Simon’s series have all been, Treme underlines his weakness for painting those outside the show’s generously considered inner circle with too broad and too contemptuous a brush. And make no mistake: As viewers, we’re very much on the outside here. There are times when I worry I’m simply not cool enough to hang out with Treme. It gets mad when I neglect it, but it isn’t happy with my interest, either. Because no matter how hard you try, you’re never gonna be New Orleans enough for it. (The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin puts it more succinctly: “The series virtually prohibits you from loving it, while asking you to value it.”)
Nevertheless, the last scene in “Right Place, Wrong Time” follows through on a theme that carries over from the rest of the hour: Anger. Anger at the insurance companies holding back payments. Anger at a police system so distressed, corrupt, and incompetent that it’s not even interested in the identity of a man it’s holding. Anger at the heavy-handedness of National Guard members. Anger over a flood victim left to decompose for months in his garage. And anger in more personal arenas, like Desiree’s fury over Antoine’s blatant promiscuity, adding insult to the injuries caused by his failure to provide. Or LaDonna’s continued frustration over all and sundry: Her brother’s disappearance into the prison bureaucracy, her mother’s bullheaded refusal to leave New Orleans to stay with family in Baton Rouge, the arrogance and provincialism of her husband’s family, and those goddamned workers who can’t get the roof fix done. (Khandi Alexander, who I confess to knowing mainly from NewsRadio, has been a revelation in this series, funny and fierce. This episode was a great showcase for her range.)
Elsewhere, several of the show’s more roguish men pay a price for going against the current. Davis and Antoine both need Toni to bail them out of the pen for agitating the authorities: Davis for telling National Guardsmen in the neighborhood to “go the fuck back to Fallujah” and Antoine for the lesser charge of drunkenly scraping a police car with his trombone. (Sidenote: How glorious was the scene right before Antoine gets arrested, when he lends vocals to an impromptu street number with buskers Sonny and Annie? Infectious scenes like that make me love Treme, even when it pushes me away.) Wendell Pierce makes Antoine enormously likable despite his weakness for loose women and a pride that’s often self-destructive, particularly when it comes to providing for the people who depend on him. It’s telling that much more viewer animus has been directed at Steve Zahn’s Davis, whose insecurity and self-righteousness (and, okay, obnoxiousness) mask the sweet soul of a man willing to blow an entire paycheck on the woman he loves (and barely tolerates him).
And speaking of viewer animus, it seems like Sonny is starting to absorb the bulk of it now that he’s become a major player on the show. This is only fair: He’s kind of a prick and not a terribly charismatic one at that. But the gesture of him buying a bottle of wine for Annie was a lot like Davis’ night out with Janette; he’s throwing everything he’s got at a woman who’s mostly frustrated by him and who’s passing him by. Watching Annie fiddle her way through some bourgeois party was aggravating to Sonny on so many levels—his exclusion, the one-night-only dissolution of their partnership, her collaboration with a musician of note, the elitist crowd treating them as background noise—that his restraint from making a scene has to be counted as semi-heroic.
Despite my concerns over the show’s attitude, it’s beginning to coalesce quite beautifully in all other regards. The ensemble is getting drawn closer and closer together, so we get to see cool interactions between, say, Antoine and the buskers or the hilarious meeting-of-the-minds between Davis and John Goodman’s bemused Creighton. The drama is starting to heat up on several domestic fronts, and the show is revealing a Wire-like interest in the failures of bureaucracy to aid those in greatest need. As Katrina has shifted from an immediate, eyes-of-the-world crisis to a long-term problem, the stress of settling back in has become harder for its characters to keep their nerve. This slow-burning season only stands to get more combustible from here.
• Chuckle of the night: The priceless expression on Antoine’s face when Desiree checks to see if he’s got anything left for her. Nope.
• Funny bit about Davis and his buddy getting harassed for breaking the open container law. “We invented the go cup. We invented the drive-thru daiquiri cup.”
• Great insight into the perils of Janette’s restaurant: Her meat person downgrading her to week-to-week, pay-as-you-go status is equivalent to a bank not extending credit. If others follow suit, she doesn’t have the tools necessary to recover.
• Still don’t have much to say about Rob Brown’s Delmond yet, but his character’s in-studio performance with Dr. John and other great musicians was another reminder that music is the show’s ace in the hole.
• “You can suck all the cock you want. Cosmically speaking, the more cocks that get sucked, the better for all humanity.”
• Davis’ insistence on teaching Creighton and Toni’s daughter a piece by Professor Longhair comes from the same place as his impulse to send tourists to a club called Bullets. There’s an I-know-better arrogance to it, but great soul and rascally fun as well, and in both cases, the parties wind up quite receptive to the experience.