For those who don’t know, Treme is the name of a TV series from HBO that started in 2010, and it’s named after the historic Tremé neighbourhood in New Orleans known for its contributions to jazz and brass band music.
When the first episode kicks off, we’re told that three months have passed since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We’re introduced to a group of characters whose lives are intertwined through six degrees of separation.
There’s Creighton (John Goodman), the English professor and writer who feels empty because of the devastation of Katrina to the city, as well as his discomfort with the knowledge that it will never be the same again. His wife, Toni (Melissa Leo), is a lawyer–to say she is relentless would be an understatement. They also have a young and impressionable daughter.
We have LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), a bar owner married to a dentist and living in Baton Rouge. She is searching for her lost brother, who was imprisoned at the time of Katrina.
We have musicians who busk, Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who seem like they’re a young couple very much in love at the outset but their relationship starts to unravel with each episode.
There’s also Antoine Batisse (Wendell Pierce), LaDonna’s ex-husband and a trombone player who has a string of divorces and children from several different relationships. He’s shacked up with his current partner and their infant daughter, but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping around. Despite this, he is portrayed as a good guy at heart.
Davis Mcalary (Steve Zahn) works at a radio station while working on his music on the side and at first he has regular fights with his gay neighbours, but as the episodes go on, their relationship improves. He also runs for mayor as a joke until he realizes that his campaign CD is actually selling like hot cakes and he has more influence than he thinks he does.
Then there’s chef Janette (Kim Dickens) who is a friend with benefits of Davis, and when the season starts is struggling to run her own restaurant and as the episodes go on, she starts a sort of a travelling road show for her cuisine.
Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is also one of the central characters, stubbornly refusing to give up on the tavern he owned as well as making sure he represents the Native American part of Mardi Gras while struggling to keep his son, a successful musician with gigs in New York, to stay closer to home.
My first impressions were that this is one of the most stark, realistic and honest portrayals of New Orleans. Instead of focusing on the touristy aspects and the glamour of the French Quarter, Treme focuses on the residents of New Orleans and how they struggle to pick up the pieces of their lives and go on after Katrina. It highlights the poverty of the Seventh Ward, and takes viewers to areas of New Orleans that were absolutely devastated in many ways beyond just geographically and financially.
It’s the struggle of the residents of New Orleans to reconcile that things can never truly be the same again, realistically dealing with police brutality, the neglect of prisoners, the neglect shown toward buildings in the projects that the government refused to re-open for residents, just how difficult it was for residents trying to return to New Orleans if they left, and so much more.
New Orleans is one of the most difficult cities to get “right” in fictional depictions. I may do a blog post dedicated just to that topic in the future. Whether it’s authors who insist on ending every line of dialogue with “chérie” to trying to use phonetics to depict the “yat” accent of New Orleans, to paranormal romances that glamourize and romanticize the French Quarter but don’t go into the heart of the city, New Orleans is an intimidating city to write about.
Most TV shows that depict New Orleans rely on racial stereotyping and over-exaggerations of dialogue that come across as crass, inauthentic and trying too hard. On a show like The Originals, New Orleans is nothing more than a pretty backdrop. Of course, TV shows are trying to tell a different story and they’re not devoted to a neighbourhood of New Orleans so it’s unfair to say that one show does a better job than the other, but my larger point is that it’s nice to see a show like Treme that is devoted to giving New Orleans the on-screen treatment and attention it deserves as opposed to just showing the “pretty bits” and little else.
The last episode of the first season is one of the best but also one of the most tragic. Towards the end of the episode, we get a glimpse of what all the characters were doing right before Hurricane Katrina hit. Many of them had taken precautions to get out of dodge, as they say, but many were convinced that this wouldn’t be “the big one,” that at the last minute, the hurricane would swerve and “just miss” New Orleans. Creighton, watching the weather reports with his wife and daughter, makes a joke about the terrible quality of the levees. He couldn’t have known how right he was and just how devastating the impact would be on the city as well as neighbouring areas because of this.
In many of the first-hand accounts I’ve read, many New Orleans residents insisted on staying put because they had survived Hurricane Betsy in the 1960s and they believed they would make it through Katrina, as well. While the show certainly isn’t upbeat or cheery, it’s not downbeat nor is it grim. There are low points for all the characters, but the narrative focuses on them trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and go on, which makes for very interesting television.
Season one alone is some of the most interesting television I’ve ever watched–everything from the authenticity to the superior acting to the topics and issues the show goes into is fascinating and well worth watching.
If you haven’t watched Treme but always wanted to, definitely look into it.