Before Katrina, New Orleans’ image in contemporary popular culture was largely based on Anne Rice novels and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces, as well as movies like Tightrope and Angel Heart and JFK. You didn’t see a lot of slice-of-life dramas and domestic comedies about relatively normal families and more-or-less ordinary people just living their lives in New Orleans, because in the popular imagination, New Orleans wasn’t one of those places, like Brooklyn or Portland or Seattle, where people just lived. It was a lawless, hothouse trouble spot populated by weirdoes, freaks, perverts, vampires, hoodoo wimmen, and gangsters plotting to assassinate the president. In Hard Target, Jon Woo’s first Hollywood movie, Lance Henriksen played a bad guy who arranged for Most Dangerous Game-style “hunts” of human beings. “It’s no accident that we’re in New Orleans,” he tells a client, when the man asks if he has no fear of the police. “Last year, we conducted hunts in Rio de Janeiro at Carnival, Yugoslavia during the late unpleasantness; you see, there’s always some unhappy little corner of the world where we can ply our trade.”
That bug-eyed nightmare version of New Orleans persists in such shows as American Horror Story: Coven and The Originals. But David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s Treme has its roots in a moment, best captured in the TV news coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, when New Orleans became Ground Zero for the country’s guilty conscience. The global economic meltdown was still two years off; a lot of people, including a preponderance of those who were handsomely paid to appear on TV and call themselves reporters, were either unaware of the widening gap between rich and poor or had made their peace with it. Suddenly, the TV was full of people standing on empty, unlit streets, announcing their shocked discovery that there was a place in America that had people in it who had no means to flee their homes at the drop of a hat and no summer residences to flee to even if they’d been able to, and the federal government didn’t seem to give a shit. (President Bush, who was given a DVD compilation of TV news reports to watch before finally making his first visit to the area, spent the days leading up to the hurricane, and the first day or so after it hit landfall, under the impression that the city wasn’t in any real danger, an impression that could have been corrected if he’d looked at any five minutes of The Weather Channel.)
When it was announced that the creator of The Wire and one of his writer-producers were going to create a series for HBO about a New Orleans neighborhood and its recovery from Katrina, it was only natural that a lot of people should have anticipated a show with the same mixture of anger, journalistic detail, and propulsive momentum as The Wire. Treme has had those qualities, except for the narrative energy, which was the one whose absence was most likely to drive viewers away. Even with characters like Melissa Leo’s lawyer-to-the-friendless and David Morse’s fed-up honest cop poking the hornets’ nest of the Orleans Parish P.D. by digging up evidence of police brutality, misconduct, and simple incompetence, the show has never threatened to become a pulse-pounding thriller. (Shippers will be pleased to learn that, some two-and-a-half years after John Goodman’s novelist/YouTube-star character took his long walk off a short ferry, these two are finally officially a couple. If this had only happened sooner, it wouldn’t be so easy to suspect that they got together because they’d both made enemies of everybody else in the general vicinity.)
Treme can feel slow-moving, to the point that it sometimes seems as if nothing much is happening. But that very quality is part of what makes it feel right as a portrait of a New Orleans neighborhood. For all its colorful history and sin-city reputation, the great defining characteristic of New Orleans, for people who live there day in and day out, may be its lassitude. (That also came across loud and clear in what used to be the best show ever set in New Orleans, Frank’s Place, a disarmingly laid-back comedy starring Tim Reid that lasted a single season in 1987-1988.) New Orleans is a magnet for people like Steve Zahn’s DJ Davis, big talkers who are having too good a time just hanging out to focus long and hard enough on any of the many projects they carry around in their heads to really make something of themselves. I lived there for 12 years myself, and my best explanation for that is that I rolled in for a summer job and forgot to leave. I knew a lot of people there with a similar story, who were just passing through and got caught up in the camaraderie and the local culture (and weighed down by the humidity). Some of them, unaccustomed to the relaxed pace, stretched out for a spell and suddenly realized that years of their lives had melted away.
It’s been so long since the last new episodes of Treme that this final season—which, at a scant five episodes, feels less like a full season than a coda to what’s gone before—may excite fans just for the chance to catch up with favorite characters. It opens on Election Day, 2008, with Davis urging (sort of) his radio listeners to get out and vote “in our politically calcified and corrupt state.” A few minutes later, Davis sums up his own ineffectuality by wrecking his car in a sinkhole; sitting on his ass in the road as hens cluster nearby, he rubs his head as if to make sure it’s still attached to his body and says, “Fuck you, chicken.” Everybody’s candidate for Most Lovable Wastrel, he’s still on friendly terms with his most recent ex-lovers, Janette the chef and Annie the violinist. Between the two of them, they help to sum up the possibilities, and lack of same, to people of talent who fit into New Orleans. Janette is still pounding away, trying to find a place she can call her own that will be worthy of her culinary gifts, this time in the Bywater. Annie, who was being groomed for stardom by her “oozy” manager, is now informed that he’s decided that she’s never going to draw too far from home; like so many who are treated as local gods in New Orleans and as one-hit wonders or curiosities in the larger world, she’s strictly a “niche” act.
Nelson, the developer from Dallas, is also still around, still embodying the spirit of the clueless capitalist outsider who appreciates the city’s charms, especially the food and the music, but doesn’t really get it and possibly never will. He runs into Davis at a neighborhood meeting, where everyone is upset about the threat of a new, officially sanctioned performance space for jazz musicians. “Why is everyone in this town so damn pissed off all the time? I mean, what’s there to yell about?” he asks. Davis, who affably calls Nelson “a corporate succubus” and says that the new jazz hall would be a “museum,” is on hand to explain it to him. He takes Nelson to see a performance by Trombone Shorty, then lectures him on Shorty’s “only in N’worleans” artistic path: “He is who he is because he comes from where he comes from. Not some music conservatory performing arts center. He comes from the streets. From the second lines, from funerals, and later, from the shithole, three-sets-a-night clubs. Music lives where it lives, bro. You can’t fuck with that. You don’t want to fuck with that!”
Speeches like that sum up Treme’s showboating, instructional, more-authentic-than-thou side, which has been a much greater impediment to its fulfilling its own artistic mission that the molasses-paced plotting and the lapses in dramatic tension. David Simon and his collaborators have been trying very hard to deliver a definitive portrait of an American city that they don’t know as well—can’t know as well—as Simon knew Baltimore by the time he made The Wire, which was the third TV series he’d worked on that was set there. Their attempts to compensate with gassy lectures and cameos by musicians and celebrity chefs have always made for Treme’s least winning moments. The good news is that there are fewer of them this time; the five-episode season requires that the writers make choices and tighten things up, and they seem to have sensed correctly what to ditch overboard.
It allows for more focus on the people who need to be up front and center, in particular Wendell Pierce’s Antoine, who’s moving from reluctant music teacher to happy father figure to his students, practically beaming as he helps a 15-year-old get treatment for an STD (“Boy’s a prodigy in more ways than one!”); Clarke Peters’ dying Big Chief; and Khandi Alexander’s LaDonna, who’s determined to get back off the canvas after being assaulted by thugs. These are all strong, funny, fiercely proud characters, all of them played by actors who gave career-best performances in previous David Simon shows and are eager to surpass themselves. As this show rolls toward the exit, it becomes increasingly clear that Alexander’s character in particular, with her tired beauty and stubborn resilience, is meant to be the physical embodiment of the city itself. Treme and New Orleans really have a lot in common: They’re both off-beat, engaging, full of heart and heat, and very, very, special—especially when, as in these last few episodes, they have the self-restraint (and self-confidence) to refrain from telling you how special they are.