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Treme: “... To Miss New Orleans”

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For a series that began with a great trumpeting of hype and splashy, big-canvass ambitions, the series finale of Treme has a muted feel to it. That’s not a bad thing. It opens with people gathered in the street to commemorate Albert’s death, and as his grown children bow their heads while a man in a pillowy Indian costume recites an incantation in his indecipherable patois, you get a sense of the show’s accomplishment: Some various strange-looking customs have been woven into the overall pattern of the show’s depiction of life in the city, so that they now just seem like the habits of ordinary people; in a nutshell, they’re just “how we do.”


The show never had an especially powerful dramatic motor, because that wouldn’t have been true to what the show’s creators were trying to capture about the place. They just dropped in on the lives of some of the people of the area and followed them for roughly three years. The stories they told began at a point in recent history when New Orleans had been in the national news, which made it easier for them to get HBO interested in doing the show, and they’re coming to an end at a point when the network must feel that it’s devoted enough time and money to this particular stretch of real estate. But if the show had focused on the same people, or a similar enough assortment of their neighbors, during a different three-year stretch of time, it probably would have felt very similar.

Albert is the only character whose story comes to a firm, conclusive finish. The first runner-up in that category is Terry, who seemed to be heading for domestic bliss with Toni. Instead, he leaves the city, having burned his last bridge at work and having pissed off too many cops to sleep soundly at night. He’s last seen with his sons in Indianapolis, proudly modeling a Saints T-shirt, a gesture akin to Adam marking the anniversary of his exile from the Garden of Eden by eating an apple. As for Toni, she absorbs whatever disappointment she feels and gets back to work, filing a lawsuit against the NOPD, and then sitting down to break bread with her favorite in-house informant, telling him to grow a pair and not take such things personally. (“I ever tell you my Harry Lee story?” she asks him, which seems like  a strange line for her to go out on that I have to wonder if it was an ad-lib. Harry Lee, who was the sheriff of Jefferson Parish from 1980 until a week before his death in 2007, was a colorful character with a knack for making headlines for making injudiciously phrased remarks, a substantial number of which amounted to orders that his men enthusiastically practice what is now called “racial profiling.” If Toni only has one Harry Lee story, she’d have to be the only liberal lawyer in Louisiana who does.)


Most of the story lines here are open-ended, though the omens vary as to just how different the characters’ futures may turn out to be than their pasts. Davis, still reeling from his fortieth birthday, attends Mardi Gras in a suit, conducting a put-on sociological interview with the leader of the Mystic Krewe Of Nutria. Davis eventually wades into the unwholesome-looking waters of the Mississippi and baptizes himself, proclaiming, “I am no longer DJ Davis.  I am—Mr. McAlary!” Later, though, he’s complaining that his shoes “feel like a science project,” and indications are that his reinvention into a mature individual will not stick. In the studio, Annie butts heads with Marvin the Manager, yelling in protest against “all the reverb, all the digital decoration, sweetener auto-tune bullshit. I don’t want it to be perfect!”

But by the end, the two of them are collaborating and working together, albeit at sword’s points. Her dedication to protecting her sound and her refusal to be turned into “some fucking dime-a-dozen Nashville cupcake” are clearly meant to show that she’ll remain an artist; her strength, combined with her willingness to compromise just enough when necessary—represented here by her doing a photo shoot instead of rushing back to the city for Fat Tuesday—may yet make her a star. But that’s a crap shoot. For now, what’s real, and important, is summed in the respect Antoine demands his sons show when he introduces them to a local legend who’s also achieved marquee success on the big stage outside the city: “That’s Mister Dr. John to you!”

One small act stands out as a modern-day heroic accomplishment. Nelson Hidalgo, his work in the city finished, packs up his moneybags and heads back to Texas. But first, he cuts a deal with Janette’s old boss to give her back the rights to her own name. Janette—who has come out for Mardi Gras in a fetching ringmaster outfit that is the first thing I’ve ever seen that’s made me think it might be a good idea for someone to remake The Greatest Show On Earth—can’t believe her good luck, and is only confused when Nelson tells her that he got it from Feeney in exchange for “a hundred per-cent of nothing.” (It turns out that, for some political reason or other, the grandiose building plans that Nelson specializes in hammering out always come to naught, but he doesn’t mind that much, because the checks clear anyway.)

This is presented as a small thing in the context of a show where matters of life and death are out of everyone’s hands, but it’s a beautiful grace note—one slick operator cheating another of his mean-spirited efforts to deny an artist her ability to attach her name to her work, a legal crime that, I suspect, has a lot of meaning to artists who’ve tried to express themselves while working in commercial television. And in New Orleans, the shady operator using his skills for good has its own special resonance. Somewhere, maybe with one foot on a cloud and the other in a furnace, Huey and Earl Long are doing a slow clap.


Stray observations:

  • Now that it’s too late to worry that any complaints one might have against this show might hurt its chances of finding an audience, can I just declare to the world how glad I am that I won’t have to listen to its theme song again? Seriously, if you hired the laziest Hollywood hack to whip up a theme song for a  show intended to celebrate the musical culture of New Orleans, do you think he could come up with anything worse than such lyrics as “Hangin; in the Treme/ Watchin’ people sashay,” or “The trombone groans/ And the big horn moans/ And there’s a saxophone!” Every time the show would come back for another season, I hoped they swap it out for something, anything else, and all that ever changed was that the accompanying photo-and-video montage would get busier. I know the song is by John Boutte, who claims the city as his home town, and for all I know, he transcribed the lines directly from some hundred-year-old Creole dude who’d spent his entire life sitting on his front porch somewhere in the Faubourg Marigny. But as the creator of Guernica is reported to have said after being shown proof that he really had painted a picture bearing his signature that he had dismissed as a fake, “I can paint fake Picassos as well as anybody!”
  • Before this show is archived at HBO Go and these reviews are consigned to the attic, I should send a friendly shout-out to Henry Griffin, who plays Davis’ redheaded sidekick (taking part in such classic N’Orleans bull sessions as the one here on the theme. “If ‘Fess is MLK, then Booker is Gandhi!”), and who used to rent me tapes of Godard and Kon Ichikawa movies when I was furthering my film education at Video Alternatives on Magazine Street. My understanding is that Video Alternatives went out of business, though this probably had more to do with the changing face of the home-entertainment business than with mismanagement (i.e., they let Henry go) or the fact that I moved to the Bronx and switched over to Netflix.