Saturday, April 10, 2010
On the fence about HBO's "Treme"
Not only did it have Simon involved, but the head writer was frequent Simon collaborator David Mills (who, sadly, passed away on the show's set just last week). The series also utilizes two of my favorite "Wire" actors, the bracingly warm Wendell Pierce and wry, sad-eyed Clarke Peters. The rest of the cast is packed with a who's who of character actors, from the always-welcome John Goodman (above), to Oscar-nominee and "Homicide" regular Melissa Leo to lovable goofball Steve Zahn.
On top of all that, there's the subject matter. The show picks up three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and follows the city's residents as they bravely attempt to put their lives back together. Clearly, this is rich subject matter and Simon -- who painted such an evocative portrait of Baltimore in "The Wire" -- has a gift for heart-breaking, but affectionate, stories about troubled cities.
Yet, after watching the three episodes sent to press, I'm sad to report that I don't love "Treme." I like it. Sometimes I like it a lot. But I feel like the series might be trying to do too much, at least at the outset.
On the one hand, the series wants to show us the toll Katrina took on New Orleans's citizens, from a bar owner (Khandi Alexander) whose brother still hasn't come home following the storm to a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Peters) who has effectively lost both his home and much of his tribe to the hurricane.
But that's not all. "Treme" also wants to be a celebration of New Orleans culture -- specifically New Orleans music. There's wall-to-wall tunes here, from the tracks played by Zahn's funky DJ to the trombone music performed by Pierce's struggling musician to performances by real life musicians, such as Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins, and classical violinist Lucia Micarelli.
But wait -- there's more. "Treme" also wants to talk at us, and remind us of the importance of honoring our big cities, even in their toughest times. This thread is mainly executed by Goodman's rage-filled college professor, who delivers profanity-riddled tirades against all who challenge the validity of rebuilding New Orleans. His speeches range from preachy to galvanizing, and garner little reaction beyond bewildered stares from other characters (though, admittedly, no one bellows like Goodman).
With so much going on in "Treme," it's often messy and disorganized. The musical numbers (thought uniformly excellent) sometimes feel shoe-horned in and the wonderful cast often isn't given enough room to breathe. There are so many characters jammed up against each other, it's difficult for the actors to create flesh and blood humans. I understand that chaos might be Simon's intent; that there might not be a way to tell this story neatly. But it makes the show hard to latch onto.
Yet there is a lot of great stuff lurking in "Treme," and if the show ever settles and finds its rhythm (which it starts to by the third episode), it could be really special. The series is visually stunning and its illustration of a ravaged New Orleans, with its literally broken, mold-splattered homes, is breath-taking.
A few of the performances also manage to poke through the mosaic of humanity and become genuinely affecting. Goodman, at this point, need only to show up to make an impression. But Pierce is truly excellent playing a man a million miles away from the good-natured Bunk. His broken trombone player, Antoine, is carnal, angry and knows no other way to make a living than by playing his "bone." He's undeniably screwed up, but also lovable and talented.
One of my favorite musical moments so far is when a drunken Antoine stumbles out of a gig to find two street musicians, one of whom is a violinist played by Micarelli. Pierce's Antoine sings along, lending his boozy growl to "A Ghost of Chance." As he croons, the violinist is taken with him, and seems to be playing just for this broken man.
I also liked the story about a restaurant owner (played by another reliable character actor, Kim Dickens) struggling to keep her business afloat amid mounting bills and an ever-scarce supply of money. Dickens, so great on "Deadwood," is an engaging presence and her character's pluckiness means we remember her even in those long stretches when we don't see her.
All in all, "Treme" is complicated and hard to love. But I want to try to love it. Despite its mess, this is a show with something to say. Yes, "Treme" doesn't always deliver that message clearly. But, in a world of procedural cop dramas and reality shows, maybe we should just celebrate that something as ambitious as "Treme" exists.