Treme: Just a Closer Walk With Y’All


Do You Know What It Means
Season 1 Episode 1

Welcome back, David Simon! You’re a certified genius and one irascible bastard. We assume that Treme will thrill us, annoy us, move us, and make us laugh. It’s a follow-up to the best show ever, but no sweat, David Simon — just make this one better, okay?

Ah, the sweet, staticky sound of the HBO bumper — it’s as instinctively pleasing to TV snobs like us as the Apple start-up chord is to Apple snobs. It’s the sound of quality, baby.

Treme opens with a shot reminiscent of The Wire, a close-up of a sax player with a reed in his mouth like a pipe. If The Wire’s Baltimore was addicted to drugs, Treme’s New Orleans is addicted to music. It’s “Three Months After”: musical instruments, National Guardsmen, and booze. And money — or, rather, no money. Two guys in a water-stained warehouse dicker about the price of a brass band in the first of approximately 25 scenes this episode of people arguing money — and making peace with the shortfalls of others. “Y’all do look correct, though,” the bandleader grudgingly admits to the fedora’d parade marshal, taking what he was offered.

But soon Davis is out dancing with some his old bandmates, explaining the concept of duels and the phrase “I will have satisfaction” to a buddy. I think that’s what we missed most about David Simon — inexplicably entertaining scenes of someone explaining something to someone else, or two people talking about a third person. Take that, Mamet! And now it’s time to meet our cast of characters.

Credits! Nice song. It’s no “Way Down in the Hole,” but we love the waterstain-and-mold motif.

So a lot of people are wondering whether Treme can draw a bigger audience than The Wire did, and it must be said that beginning the premiere with Steve Zahn’s naked ass may not be the way to go. Zahn, as boho D.J. Davis McAlary, jumps out of bed, wang a-danglin’, and heads down to the street — though not before a regretful paramour, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), gets the hell out of his house with some sweet talk: “Seriously, Davis, this place is a shithole.”

But soon Davis is out dancing with some his old bandmates, explaining the concept of duels and the phrase “I will have satisfaction” to a buddy. I think that’s what we missed most about David Simon — inexplicably entertaining scenes of someone explaining something to someone else, or two people talking about a third person. Take that, Mamet! And now it’s time to meet our cast of characters.

We follow Janette to her restaurant, which faces shortages of waitresses, dishwashers, oysters, and crayfish. “No fuckin’ frozen Chinese crayfish in my kitchen,” she yells. “How’s your house?” asks her line cook. “Don’t ask me about my house,” she replies.

Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) drives back into New Orleans from Houston with his daughter, who isn’t pleased to be back. She takes him to his destroyed old house and he sadly plucks at his waterlogged possessions, feet sinking into the inches of mud caked on the floor. Soon he’s clearing out his old bar and she’s on her way back to Houston — after an emergency call to her brother, a trumpeter on break from playing hard bop at New York’s Blue Note.

After the parade, Antoine and his buddies are drinking at Gigi’s Lounge, under the watchful eye of Antoine’s ex-wife, Ladonna (Khandi Alexander). “What went wrong?” someone asks. Ladonna replies, “What went wrong? I married a goddamn musician.” Later, Antoine slyly hits on her, but she shoots him down, asking why he never goes up to Baton Rouge to visit his kids.

Creighton Bernette, a professor and rabble-rouser, is out on the levee shooting an interview with a British camera crew, and because he’s played by John Goodman, he soon gets in a full Sobchak-style lather about the authorities who failed New Orleans. (“Daddy, you’re gonna stroke out,” his daughter complains.) When the interviewer suggests that maybe the city isn’t worth rebuilding, Creighton tries to throw his camera in the canal. Back in his non-water-damaged home, he explains himself to his clucking wife, lawyer Toni (Melissa Leo), before getting on the phone to shout at NPR. “The media likes a simple narrative,” he says, “that they and their listeners can get their tiny brains around.” A thesis statement! Once again, the David Simon voice is so satisfying, even though David Mamet is snapping cigars in half with rage right now.

Creighton and Toni head out to dinner, where Janette serves them some Hubig’s pies for dessert because there’s barely anything else left. (“Drizzle somethin’ on it!” she instructs her line chef.) They ask her about her house. “Don’t as me about my fuckin’ house,” she sings.

Late that night, Davis makes it to the radio station for his shift. He’s got a whole theme night planned out, revolving around the mafia — “the mafia is way better equipped to run New Orleans than the US government or the state of Louisiana” — but he’s told that it’s pledge season, so one out of every three songs needs to be from, as Davis puts it, “the fuckin’ New Orleans fuckin’ canon.” Nonetheless, he starts off with “Buona Sera” by Sicilian/New Orleansian Louis Prima, and ignores the phone calls from his boss.

It’s the next morning. Antoine wakes up in his girlfriend’s bed and immediately looks for his wallet. It’s sitting empty on the counter, with a note next to it reading “GROCERIES.” Another cab ride, another cabbie stiffed, as Antoine heads up to actual real-life jazz legend Kermit Ruffins’s house to beg for a spot in his gig tonight. And while Kermit’s at it … “Can I get an advance on that? Taxi outside’s got my ‘bone in it.”

Meanwhile, Davis busts into the liquidating Tower Records to demand his old band’s CDs, sold there on consignment. It’s not long before he’s vented his spleen at the corporate bastards abandoning New Orleans and security tosses him into the alley. “I will have satisfaction,” he mutters, brushing himself off. That night, Davis hits Kermit’s club, where he half-watches Kermit and Antoine play and half-stalks Elvis Costello, who’s in the audience. After about a dozen false starts, Davis finally works up the courage to sidle up next to Costello and tell him that he used to play with Ruffins.

“I taught him everything he knows,” Davis says. Elvis stares at him skeptically. ” … about Keynesian economics,” Davis adds. After the show, Davis tries to get Kermit to schmooze, but he doesn’t even know who Elvis Costello is. “You just want to play, get high, and barbecue in New Orleans all your life?” David demands. Kermit laughs and says yes, he is that unambitious. (NOT TRUE, by the way. He’s on MySpace.)

Soon Davis and a friend (not Elvis, sadly) are busting into Tower late at night, boosting not only his band’s disks but also a sweet out-of-print Dave Bartholomew boxed set. The next morning he tries to use the boxed set to pay for the $350 bottle of wine he cracked open at Janette’s restaurant without her permission. “Throw him out,” she snaps.

Meanwhile, Albert asks a friend who’s got a hauling business if he can help clean up the bar. “I’m asking as a chief,” he says, but the friend points out he’s not his chief. He’s got a FEMA contract and a booming business and he can’t spare a truck and a crew to clear out Albert’s bar for free.

But that night Albert appears on his street, hollerin’ at the moon in full Carnival regalia — golden feathers, headdress, tambourine and all. He looks like a rooster who got his own Vegas show. “I Big Chief, guardian of the flame. Mardi Gras Day I make the fire in the name!” His friend protests — “There may not even be a Carnival this year! Ain’t nobody home! Some of those houses still got bodies up in there!” But Albert stares him down until he agrees to do the work. The next day, Albert’s son shows up, having bowed out of a show in Boston to talk some sense into his crazy old man. Albert sends him to pay the water bill.

Toni meets Ladonna in a cafe for an update on Ladonna’s brother, missing since Katrina. Ladonna heard he might have been up on the Broad Street overpass with some other prisoners and wants Toni to check it out. Toni settles in for breakfast with two cops, one of whom is friendly, one of whom is a jerk. When he storms off, she asks what his problem was. “You sued him,” her friend reminds her, and tells her there’s no record of the brother ever being in custody. After a trip to the newspaper offices to look at wire photos of the overpass, Toni heads to Gigi’s Lounge to show Ladonna proof he was there. She can’t believe he might still be alive. She stares at the photo. “Where he at?” she whispers.

Toni heads to the sheriff’s office and demands to see the sheriff. “Might be a long wait,” the skeptical cop on duty says. She settles in a chair. That night, we see her return home to the husband she’d scolded for losing his temper. “Sons of bitches!” she screams, tossing her shoulder bag to the floor. “Fuck every last one of ‘em!” Creighton gives a chuckle that can only be described as Goodmanesque.

It’s the next morning. Antoine talks another cabbie down on his fare then makes it out to a church for a jazz funeral.

“Who goin’ home?” he asks.

“Beau Jacques goin’ home.”

“Beau Jacques from over Algiers?”

“No, man,” the drummer says.

“The one who played sax with Huey Smith?”

“The one who stole cars from motherfuckers down St. Bernard Parish. Hattie’s nephew. The big-headed motherfucker with the lazy eye.”

“Yeah,” Antoine says, and thinks for a second. “I thought he been dead.” We laughed out loud. Suck it, Mamet!

“Nah, he went to Houston after the storm,” the bandleader replies. “He fucked around and got himself shot to death in one of them Telephone Road bars.”

As the casket comes out of the church, the parade makes its way past boarded-up houses reminiscent of Snoop’s hiding places in The Wire — another visual reference, reminding us that we’re in a new place now, a new show, a new world. The band plays a slow steady rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” It’s a gorgeous song, but one whose lyrics are belied by the message of this first episode.

In this world of toil and snares, the song asks, If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who but Thee my burden shares? In building a community from the ground up in one 80-minute premiere — in packing the lede, like true journalists, with the who, the when, the what, and (especially) the where — Simon, and Eric Overmyer, and David Mills (R.I.P.) have made their theme clear. New Orleans is too old, and packed too tight with history and relationships, for anyone to walk alone. All y’all share the burden, they’re saying to their characters. Get going.

More Recaps:
Alan Sepinwall notices that Davis’s old band, Uncut Funk, is named for dearly departed David Mills’ old P-Funk fanzine.
Scott Tobias at the AV Club says the premiere reminds us that David Simon “loves people. What he hates are the institutions that fail them.”
MTV.com’s Ben Collins breaks down the episode’s music, including the terrific use of Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass.”

Treme: Just a Closer Walk With Y’All