TREME ON DEMANDApril 12, 2010
On Demand Weekly provides new movie and Television reviews of hot titles on demand. Today’s review: Treme.
The tag line “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” was intended to highlight the pay cabler’s elite status amid its TV channel rivals, and now some could say there exists an even more exclusive club, perhaps with a tag line that reads “It’s not HBO, it’s Simon HBO.” After slipping sideways from journalism at the Baltimore Sun, David Simon wrote for network hits NYPD Blue and Homicide, Life on the Street (based on his novel). Great career… And then came Emmy Award-winning The Corner, then oft-repeated “best TV show ever” (and Obama fave) The Wire and then mini-series stunner Generation Kill, all on HBO. It’s become easy to understand and appreciate the cult of David.
Now, with the bar higher than ever, Simon and co-creator (Wire & Homicide creative) Eric Overmyer, along with a coterie of other such alums (including Simon’s long-time friend and brilliant writer David Mills who collapsed during filming and tragically died of an aneurysm at 48) bring us Treme (pronounced Treh-MAY), an hour-long drama named after the so-called “poorest neighborhood in New Orleans” also the “birthplace of jazz” three months after Hurricane Katrina.
If HBO is a place known for reinventing TV genres (family drama – Six Feet Under, mobsters - The Sopranos, westerns – Deadwood and cop shows – The Wire) Treme stands out as being unique by not having a particular genre to identify with. It boasts Simon’s journalism-infused perspective - he believes the worst journalists are the attack dogs and the best ones are merely curious – this has led to a naturalistic, morally non-judgmental and truth-seeking form of fictional television rather than the artificial norm. Like the “best series ever” before it, Treme is set in a notoriously poor neighborhood rife with racial and economic inequity, but aside from a few familiar faces, that’s about as far as the similarities to The Wire go – and that’s going to hurt it some with respect to viewers’ expectations – as the creators openly acknowledge.
As is the norm, nuance is off the charts. Though the pilot is directed by vet Agnieszka Holland and ep two by Jim McKay, it feels very much a Simon affair. Casting by Alexa Fogel is also as usual (in most cases) par excellence. At the nucleus is Wendell Pierce (“Bunk” Moreland on The Wire) as Antoine, a trombonist searching for any gig he can get. Joining him are the dignity-radiating Clarke Peters (Lester from The Wire) as Albert, a Mardi Gras Indian Chief (google it) and seemingly professional Don Quixote trying to put his dispersed band back together, and Khandi Alexander (astounding in The Corner) as LaDonna, a bar owner searching for her missing brother. White faces at first feel jarring. John Goodman and Steve Zahn? But then Goodman, as cantankerous English professor Creighton Bernette, delivers some priceless lines and all is forgiven. As for Zahn, playing an on-the-nose bohemian music fan who can’t stick with a job, he remains the one annoying character in the bunch. Kim Dickens (Joanie Stubbs on Deadwood) rounds out the majors as a restaurateur trying to hold it together. Locals (musicians in particular) were cast from the area and shine brightly.
A note about the music: It frames the show. As such, if you are not a New Orleans jazz fan (something incomprehensible to the music-obsessed Simon) patience will be required - but if you’re lucky, you may find yourself won over by the spirit of the thing (like I was) – especially by little moments like a typical funeral immersed in music or the one that appears in episode two where Albert and one other guy create magic with two tambourines.
As fans know, The Wire was all about institutions (one focus per season) and how they squash individual attempts at change, promoting a vicious cycle (specifically in Baltimore). It seemed the axis on which that futile world spun was rooted purely in crime and punishment. The fates beckoned the worst from humanity from birth til death no matter their brief, little victories. The metaphor was the decline of the American empire. With Treme the environment may seem similar but the axis has shifted. It is now rooted in music – an art that represents the fates calling on the best in humanity - despite the circumstances. Hope and mirth are at the core of this society. This represents the resilience of the American spirit (according to Simon, New Orleans is one of the only cities in the USA that seems to have the ability to “produce” anything of value anymore.)
David Simon series pose questions (journalistic: how can this happen? And present characters as answers - not wrapped up, but as examples of exploring a number of possible answers). Treme’s question lies in its history. Named after Claude Treme, a French “real estate developer” the Treme neighborhood became the most progressive neighborhood in the country – people of color, including African slaves and Haitian refugees could purchase their own land and congregate long before any other location could claim the same. This led to mixtures of music that formed jazz and infused the African American district with wealth, happiness and a far-reaching reputation for originality.
So Treme’s question is: How did one of the most important American birthplaces of freedom resonating with art and music (ostensibly the reason to be for life as we know it) become America’s first “lost city?” Will the spirit that lives there triumph? The answer – we’ll have to hang out with the characters for a while. So far is it worth it? I hate to use the phrase, “I ga-ron-tee it” (check your 90’s pop culture handbook), but the premiere of Treme cooks slow like good barbeque and I’m looking forward to the meat falling off the bone.
Sean McPhillips is a contributing writer to On Demand Weekly. He is a former vice president of acquisitions for Miramax Films (During Harvey's reign). He is a current writer/director for NY-based Secret Hideout Films. as well as Festival Coordinator, Programmer for the brand new Gold Coast Film Festival (to make its debut in June, 2011)
Look for each episode of Treme series after its broadcast premiere on HBO On Demand. In addition, HBO offers behind the scenes looks of David Simon's new TV series (About and the Making Treme) On Demand.
On Demand > Premium > HBO > HBO Series > Treme
Available until 7/19/10
80 min / TVMA