Saturday, April 10, 2010

On the fence about HBO's "Treme"

As a die-hard fan of David Simon's brilliant and blistering HBO drama series "The Wire," I desperately wanted to love his newest series for the network, "Treme," debuting Sunday at 10 p.m. And, for a while, it seemed that I might indeed love it.
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.
It's lovely.
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.


Ray said...

What was your take on The Wire after three episodes?

TV Writer said...

I see your point, but I actually embraced The Wire almost from the beginning. It was also a complex story, but I didn't feel like it tried to do quite so much right away. It was a straightforward slice of life.
It wasn't a slice of life and a musical and a bunch of other stuff.

Bob said...

I have to agree that unspoken in your comment is a comparison to "The Wire". Even if that means "Well, I took to "The Wire" right away, but I'm not taking to this right away." Somehow you have to step away from that.

This is I know without having seen any of the episodes yet- David Simon and company are trying to get this amazingly illusive City and its people and culture right, and sometimes it (as any big effort), may be chaotic and messy (and side note-New Orleans itself is often chaotic and messy). When all is said and done, if it on some levels it falls short, it's not going to be for lack of reaching as high as they can. As an artist myself and as someone who used to live in New Orleans, I appreciate that effort.

Bill Scurry said...

I wanted to like it, but shut it down halfway through -- New Orleans is too obscure and parochial for me to care about, at least in this context. The character actors seem likable enough, but there was a lack of an "A" story to stitch the whole thing together. Zahn's wacky weedhead DJ was too silly to care about, and Pierce's trombonist was too rootless to identify with.

Plus, I hate that goddamn zydeco horn bullshit music so much that it makes my neckhair stand on end.

TV Writer said...

Bill, I will tell you that the characters become a little more rooted and fleshed out by the third episode, and the show starts narrowing its focus a little bit. But I agree that it's a bit too much in the beginning -- particularly since the pilot is 80 minutes long. 80 minutes is a long time to ask people to wade through a mosaic of vignettes about characters that, at the outset, are just types.
I disagree about the music, though.

The Colonel said...

No! Zydeco is da shiznit!

The Colonel said...

I finally got around to watching the first episode, and ... I like it. In fact, I'm encouraged about its prospects. Your words dampened my expectations a bit, so maybe that played a role.

Yeah, it's a little messy and disorganized, but so is the city, so are the people, so is the music. Everyone's hustling, but no one's in a rush. Everyone's ambitious, but no one wants to leave. Death is everywhere, but the living have the last word. There's a beauty to it, a shambling, romantic beauty. I spent five days in New Orleans (two months before Katrina), and I mostly did the drunken tourist thing, but even the touristy stuff is redolent of the river, the coffee, the people, the sweaty and sad music. "Treme" made me feel like I was back in the city, only this time I was living there.

What I didn't like: Simon talks at us through Goodman (though I felt this was somewhat redeemed by a nice moment between Goodman and Leo at the end up of the episode), and Steve Zahn is an annoying little wannabe, isn't he? At least the other characters seem to think so, otherwise I wouldn't totally accept him.

The Colonel said...

I should also say I didn't much care for the Elvis Costello cameo. I hope something more comes of his appearance. Otherwise it, like Goodman's diatribes, just smacks of Simon and crew telling the audience that they should care about these characters.