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Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Treme" returns for a second season tonight

One of the nicest pleasures of the past TV season was watching HBO's drama "Treme," which returns for its second season tonight at 10, evolve from something I found preachy and slightly off-putting to something I genuinely enjoyed.

When the show premiered last year, I found it simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and the volume of things creator David Simon wanted to accomplish with the show. "Treme" focuses on New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina and is, like Simon's previous HBO series "The Wire," an indictment of bureaucracy and its effect on urban communities. But it's also a celebration of the music, food and culture of New Orleans. It was part travelogue, part musical and part testimonial on the endangerment of American culture.
And, at first, I was underwhelmed by how all that was executed. There were so many characters, it was initially hard for me to make any connection with any them -- even when they were played by excellent actors like Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Melissa Leo, Steve Zahn, John Goodman and Kim Dickens. The goals of the series were so vast, it was easy to get lost. Simon and company through so much at us that not enough was getting through.
However, through the course of the season's first half, "Treme" began to settle into a rhythm and become a more cohesive -- and wonderfully absorbing -- series as certain storylines emerged. I became invested in the tragic downslide of Goodman's Creighton Bernette as he watched the city he loved falling apart in the aftermath of the natural -- and man-made -- travesty foisted upon it. I was moved by the tale of talented fiddle player Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) and her soul-sucking relationship with the destructive Sonny (Michiel Huisman). I also grew to love Wendell Pierce as the boisterous and constantly cash-strapped trombone player Antoine Batiste, and eventually warmed up to Steve Zahn as the prickly DJ Davis.
Over time, "Treme" developed into something you rarely see on TV -- and something that Simon is very good at -- an unvarnished peek into people's daily lives. Yes, it was still preachy at times. But, more often than not, it was heart-breaking and funny (the best example of that was the season's Mardi Gras episode, which followed our major characters on this important day). By the end of the season, I became very attached to "Treme," and the new season, so far, doesn't squander that goodwill.
The season picks up 14 months after Katrina and, I imagine, a few months after the end of last season. Jeanette (Dickens) is at a miserable restaurant in New York after her place in New Orleans closed. Davis and Annie are embarked on a full-fledged (and very sweet) romance. Antoine is still looking for ways to make money, while Albert (Peters) suddenly finds himself without a place to live. Toni (Leo) is struggling with her husband's death, and with her increasingly angry and rebellious daughter. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) is wondering what to do with her family in the wake of her brother's death.
It's still a lot of humanity coming at you. I haven't even mentioned the cop, played briefly by David Morse last season, who now has a larger role. Nor have I discussed the new character played by Jon Seda. It's a lot to take in. The difference between this season and last is that I'm now invested enough in the characters to sort through it all. "Treme" still lapses into lecture at times. There's a scene in the second episode when Jeanette launches into a tirade against a scathing critique of New Orleans written by GQ food critic Allen Richman. Richman is a real guy so, I'm presuming, this was a real article that really pissed off Jeanette's real life counterparts. But allowing Jeanette to make an impassioned speech about the inappropriateness of the article kind of slows the episode down. It's not nearly as effective as the scenes of a simmering Jeanette bristling under the constant scrutiny of her oppressive New York boss and silently longing for the days when she ran her own place back home.
Yet that seems like something of a nitpick. The two episodes of the new season I've watched thus far are still moving and smart and funny. I still really love Pierce's warm, expansive performance as the troubled Antoine and there's a great sequence in one of the early episodes where he cheerfully totes his baby along on his quest for work, using her as a prop when needed. You need an actor as likable as Pierce to carry something like that off, and he does it with aplomb.
I also love Micarelli, as the adorable Annie, who was last season's breakout star. She makes a great foil for Zahn's surly, over-principled Davis, bringing out his sweetness and humanity.
And then, there's the music. In the beginning part of last season, I found the show's constant use of music almost distracting. Now, however, I'm kind of into it. Music is at the core of so many of these characters. Why shouldn't it be at the core of the show as well?
I'm hoping the new season of "Treme" continues to be the smart, entertaining series I grew to love last year. Actually, I have every reason to believe it will be.

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