The New Orleans drama Treme is a demanding and in some ways off-putting show, yet at the same time a warm and sweet one. This paradoxical mix of qualities is on display in the show's final half-season of five episodes, premiering on HBO tonight. It's still the sort of show that makes you reach out to it, rather than reaching out to you — a characteristic that Treme shares with a good many of its characters, a mostly obsessive and intractable bunch who are inclined to monologues about art, work, family, mortality, and the characteristics of the perfect po-boy. But the show's palpable sense of community, coupled with its awareness of how individuals struggle through trauma and grief, warms everything up. Treme wasn't a big enough hit for HBO to order a full fourth season, and from everything I've heard, this bookending half-season wasn't easy for the producers to get, yet there's no bitterness or rancor in these episodes, no sense of score-settling. It's got the feeling of a farewell and benediction. Its heart is kind.
I won't divulge too many plot developments here, because I'm planning on taking Simon's advice to watch the thing in totality and write about it at length later on, and because plot was never Treme's main area of interest anyway. Suffice to say that what's especially striking here is how much mellower the characters are than when we first laid eyes on them. In the first season, which took place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, almost everybody was hanging from a frayed thread. The many monologues (sometimes rants) about what was great or horrible about New Orleans seem in retrospect like blasts of emotional steam being let off by people who weren't sure how they'd get through the next week, let alone the next year, and who were legitimately worried about what would become of the city that defined so much of their personal identity.
The characters have all been through plenty since the flood. Some have suffered miseries of blues-song magnitude. LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) survived a rape, witnessed the burning of her beloved pub in an act of witness intimidation, and finally severed a marriage to a man whose family was probably too respectable for her in the first place. Civil-rights lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) and her daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) survived the death of Toni's husband and Sofia's father, Creighton (John Goodman); Toni has struggled to get justice for her clients, many of whom are victims of police brutality and corruption that seems never-ending. She's found love again with righteous cop Terry Colson (David Morse), as well as an ally in her battle against entrenched corruption in the New Orleans police department; this season starts with Toni taking a potentially explosive case recommended to her by Sonny (Michiel Huisman), the recovering drug addict who's so much more centered now than when we first met him that if you looked at his old self, you might not recognize him. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) was diagnosed with cancer last year and is still dealing with that, but now he's got LaDonna in his life. Wendell Pierce's Antoine Batiste has gone from being a frustrated nightclub musician to a fulfilling second career as a high school band teacher; this season draws him even deeper into his students' lives, in ways that connect him, and them, to the community.
There's a secondary stratum of characters whose problems aren't nearly as grandly sorrowful. Many of them are defined mainly by their struggle to be authentic and true as they practice their art, whatever that is. Chef Janette DeSautel (Kim Dickens) walked away from a restaurant built in her name, and in this season she learns that she's contractually bound not to use that name on whatever place she opens next. It's funny to see her hooked up once again with motormouthed civic booster, DJ, and wannabe-bandleader Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), since Davis seems much more amenable to compromise than before. He talks to her about committing to a life "full-time" after spending so many years spelunking in four or five creative arenas simultaneously, and perhaps representing himself as a lone voice of incorruptible artistic purity so that he'd never have to be professional about anything, and could rationalize his lack of progress as the price that martyrs pay.
A lot of Treme characters have played variations of that martyr melody, including Albert and his jazz musician son Delmond (Rob Brown), and Davis' onetime girlfriend, the drop-dead-gorgeous fiddle player Annie (Lucia Micarelli) who's got everything she needs to be a niche-market musical superstar, but doesn't want to stray too far away from her musical and geographic roots. In the context of selling out/not selling out/the myth of selling out, the most sneakily fascinating character is Texas businessman Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a glad-hander and carpetbagger who sees opportunity in crisis and somehow manages to grab himself a slice of every available pie. In a less fair-minded series, he'd be a villain, but on Treme, he seems more like a representative of the rest of the United States, looking at New Orleans as a tourist might, and thinking, "A pity what the flood did to all those poor people. I haven't seen the French Quarter in a few years. Maybe I'll get on Kayak and check out flights."
Democratic in its storytelling as well as its political and social attitudes, Treme depicts the lives of its recurring characters as hard bricks of undigested experience, like pieces of a documentary from the so-called Direct Cinema school, which favored observation over interpretation. Both the show's conversations and its musical numbers tend to start sometime after they officially "began" offscreen, and oftentimes we cut away from them before they've had a chance to properly finish. This gives the show a sense of forward (if somewhat scattered) momentum, even when it's sticking to its longstanding policy of giving momentous and comparatively mundane events roughly the same amount of storytelling weight.
You get the sense that you're dipping in and out of different lives, and neighborhoods, almost randomly, though of course there's a buried sense of design to how the material is arranged. As Hank Stuever writes, "The show was always willing to stop for a song and a reverie, as if the plot could always wait for the next episode — or simply remain unresolved."
But just because Treme resists cheap and easy notions of closure doesn't mean its characters and setting aren't going somewhere. Tonight's kickoff episode is set on the day of President Obama's inauguration. It'll make some viewers nostalgic for that brief window when it seemed as though anything was possible, including a fresh start coupled with a mission to address old grievances and fix old mistakes. The show's looking at that period in hindsight, of course, so even as it lets its characters enjoy a momentary rush of optimism at the prospect of starting over, it's still got that melancholy David Simon undertow — that "been there, done that, won't get fooled again" feeling. The show is skeptical of pretty much every major character's grand bid for self-actualization or self-improvement because it knows how politics and economics and human frailty can get between us and whatever our goals are.
But for all that relaxed world-weariness — the attitude of a smiling old man sitting on a front porch watching young folks flirt and hatch schemes — it's still a hopeful series, especially in this final run of chapters, because so many of its characters seem to have accepted that their life is their life, and that simply surviving represents a kind of victory, and that sometimes life gets better without our consciously realizing it.
"I like you better now than when we were married," LaDonna tells Antoine. "I had a growth spurt, I guess," he replies. In every joke, truth.