Treme

'Treme,' Episode 1: A World Of Profundity

Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffins, Wendell Pierce.

hide captionLocal DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) with Kermit Ruffins (being himself) and Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) after a gig.

HBO

There's a scene in the pilot episode of Treme where a British TV journalist is being particularly nettlesome toward John Goodman's hot-headed professorial character, Creighton Bernette. The reporter is trying to play devil's advocate — though he seems to mean it, too — and asks Creighton something to the effect of, "Why should U.S. taxpayers help rebuild New Orleans if it's such a backwater; if the food is provincial and the music is dated?" Creighton's response to an ignorant question like that is justifiable: In a comically profane outburst, he chucks the microphone into the Mississippi. The scene fades on Creighton trying to send the camera into the delta as well.

It's meant largely for laughs, sure. But an uncomfortable question is buried in there somewhere. All of Treme seems to hinge implicitly around answering, "Why should anyone care about New Orleans?" Had Creighton stayed level-headed, he might have spoken the implicit thesis: that New Orleans is full of human beings — forsaken by government, incompletely portrayed by news media — who are determined to rebuild their unique culture with their own hands. But that would be telling, not showing. The team behind Treme seems bent on demonstrating — one song, one food item, one visually striking sequence, one patois-inflected character drama at a time — why the culture of New Orleans is important and, more importantly, beautiful.

Given that this is the first episode of a television series with an ensemble cast, we have to learn about the many characters — inasmuch as a David Simon show pays attention to exposition. So instead of a straight recap of the episode, here's what's established so far. We know that Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is a broke trombonist scraping by on gigs, and living with his girlfriend and kid outside the city. His ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) runs a bar and is searching for a brother who has gone missing since the storm. Helping her in that search is a white lawyer named Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), who seems to have a penchant for civil rights work. She, of course, is married to Creighton Bernette, as previously introduced.

But this show is thoroughly about music, and there are plenty more musicians. Clarke Peters has an enormous task in trying to play Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian so determined to return home that he's willing to clean up a local bar just so he can have a place to live. His son Delmond (Rob Brown) is a trumpeter who's since moved to New York to make it as a jazz trumpeter, and looks askance on his father's decision. The pilot also sees cameos from musicians like Donald Harrison Jr., Kermit Ruffins, Elvis Costello and members of local brass bands. Well plugged into the scene is a puckish DJ at the local independent radio station WWOZ, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) — he's on-again-off-again with Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a struggling restaurant owner.

Still, the episode opens more questions than it answers. So I asked my colleague Josh Jackson at WBGO — a proud New Orleans native — for his take on a few things:

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PJ: You and I were talking about Treme co-creator David Simon's penchant for, let's call it verisimilitude — even if it goes over the head of most non-New Orleanians. Here's a man that once said "F—- the average viewer" on the BBC. Perhaps you can point out some of the references that most people wouldn't get — foods, Mardi Gras Indians, the workings of a second-line parade or brass-band funeral, "Won't Bow, Don't Know How"...

JJ: I can appreciate Simon's demand for buy-in. New Orleans is simply too much to explain in an hour and change of television. You just have to accept certain events for the sake of the medium. We're meeting characters for the first time. This is how they live.

That said, there were tons of cultural signifiers. We're immediately introduced to members of social aid and pleasure clubs [Black Men of Labor, Money Wasters and Treme Sidewalk Steppers] negotiating payment with Rebirth Brass Band to play for a second line. It is the first such parade since the thing that shall not be named. Social aid and pleasure clubs were created in New Orleans after emancipation. They were, and still are, a form of insurance for African-Americans who could not obtain coverage because of some systemic dysfunction — institutional racism being the prevailing motivator. These clubs functioned as a cultural safety net for members who had freedom but little else. They tended to the dispossessed when society-at-large would not. One person's socialism is another person's survival, I suppose.

Second lines are community parades built around a specific event. For instance, the Black Men of Labor parades on Labor Day. They hire local artisans and seamstresses to make fans, umbrellas, shirts and banners. Then they parade through neighborhoods on a route of their choosing, stopping along the way to honor an elder, imbibe the spirits and acknowledge historical markers in the community. Anyone can join the second line, the swirl of celebrants behind the band and club members. The contingent of revelers includes buck jumpers, dancers engaging in a full-body release to the music. (John Boutte sings "buck jumpin' and having fun" in the last line of Treme's theme song.)

Mardi Gras Indians are African-Americans who spend a year sewing their highly elaborate costumes. Indians are a formalized [and now peaceful] cultural "gang" with a tribal hierarchy — big chiefs, queens, spy boys, flag boys, a wild man — each of them with a responsibility. They chant in a distinctive patois. They practice these rituals privately on Sundays, and mask during Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Night. Uptown and downtown Indians are differentiated by their costumes. Everyone works hard to be the prettiest. They compete among tribes to determine who is prettiest, a badge of honor. Tribes also congregate on Super Sunday to show off their beaded and feathered handiwork. I could go on. (Note: You can hear Jelly Roll Morton talk about this tradition in his Library of Congress recordings.)

The term "won't bow, don't know how" [said by Albert Lambreaux and all over the series' advertisements] originates in one of the oldest and most sacred prayers, "Indian Red." Danny Barker, an important figure in New Orleans music, recorded a version in the 1950s. The emphasis is on standing pat against a series of indignities and injustices.

Then there's food. LaDonna serves Antoine a plate of red beans and rice. He comments that "it ain't even Monday," the customary day for this dish. Once upon a time, women typically put beans on the stove all day Monday while they washed clothes. The modern convenience of washing machines didn't remove the stain of tradition. Susan Spicer, a wonderful chef in New Orleans, is the template for the character Janette Desautel — Janette offers lemon ice to Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), who is faithful to the lemon ice at Angelo Brocato's, an authentic Italian pasticceria in New Orleans. So Janette fishes a Hubig fried pie from her purse and instructs the sous-chef to drizzle some sauce over it. Hubig's is a much-loved bakery in the Faubourg Marigny. It was not open three months after the storm. Let's call it dramatic license or a very old pie.

One episode in, and we have just experienced a fairly close representation of what makes New Orleans a special place. It's a duality of ugly beauty, to steal from Thelonious Monk.

PJ: Goodman's character is frequently saying, in strident terms, that Hurricane Katrina was a "man-made catastrophe" — that various government agencies, local and federal, didn't fix what needed fixing and generally mishandled everything. Seeing as how David Simon needed to underline this multiple times, I take it that this is a prevailing sentiment among actual residents of the city; that the government is actually neglectfully ineffectual.

JJ: I can't speak for everyone in New Orleans, but you will find many citizens who have little respect for the Army Corps of Engineers, the Orleans Parish Levee Board, and the multitude of documented cases of political opportunism, graft and overall incompetence from layers of bureaucratic boondoggles at every level of government. Discontent is a valid reaction when government fails at its most basic responsibility — protecting its people.

PJ: I can't help thinking about The Wire, which has been described as a novel about the American city. There was something of a universal aim to the portrayal of Baltimore, as if it could have starred any police department/drug ring/labor union/educational system/local paper in any American city. Treme is responding to a specific historical event in a self-consciously unique city. I take it that the detail here is about something more than local color.

JJ: I think you will see that New Orleans has been in a state of decay not unlike most of inner-city America. If anything, it has been grappling with these age-old humanity and civil rights issues longer than most places. But for all the idiosyncratic local charm, both beautiful and damned, New Orleans has maintained a distinctive blues identity that is its primary export, and one that is frankly a recurring motif in the artistic and cultural narrative of our nation. Is it strong enough to reconnect people scattered by tragedy? I can't read tarot, but all signs point to yes.

PJ: To continue thinking about The Wire, David Simon has often described that show as, and I paraphrase, a Greek tragedy where everyone is screwed by forces beyond their control. Here, the tragedy seems to have already happened; it's the event that everyone is fighting to not let define themselves. This show is seemingly about — gasp — hope.

JJ: Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is the thing with feathers, but she most certainly was not thinking about a Mardi Gras Indian chief. When Albert Lambreaux (uncharacteristically against tradition) dresses in costume and walks to Robinette's home in the middle of the night, he seems to be making the case for more than just hope. There's defiance and pride of purpose. But there's also this much bigger idea floating around that culture is the first responder to tragedy. People build communities around these associations. David Simon is introducing some very complex characters. I don't think we've seen the end of tragedy, but there's hope left in Pandora's Box.

PJ: Talking about characters a little: It seems like Rob Brown's character, jazz trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux, is juxtaposed against the cameo from Kermit Ruffins. We first see Delmond playing smart, studied bebop with Donald Harrison Jr. at the Blue Note in New York — an expensive and prestigious jazz club. (By the way, Christian Scott was saying at NPR the other day how that character is loosely based on him.) Delmond's father is a Mardi Gras Indian, and judging from his interaction with his dad, he thinks that his pops is somewhat crazy for wanting to return to New Orleans.

Whereas Kermit just plays a killer set, doesn't know who Elvis Costello is and is portrayed as generally uninterested in fame. The WWOZ DJ asks him, "D'ja just stand there and tell me all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbeque in New Orleans your whole damn life?" To which Kermit replies, "That'll work." Perhaps you could comment on the difference in the New Orleans jazz community between musicians who leave town for bigger and brighter — often in styles that aren't unique to New Orleans — and those who stay to maintain the musical culture (and eat barbeque)? Is there tension?

JJ: Delmond is a composite character. Christian Scott is definitely represented, but I think Delmond more closely resembles Donald Harrison Jr. himself, whose father was big chief of the Guardians of the Flame (like Albert Lambreaux). Delmond plays trumpet in Donald's band in New York (as Christian once did), further blurring the line of what's real and what's fiction.

Delmond and his sister do not fully understand what motivates their father's actions. Blame it on their youth. They look at the ruins and see an endpoint, where Albert sees his entire life inside that bar on Miro Street. How could he possibly abdicate his heritage? Delmond is indicative of a very real sentiment from young African-Americans who think they have escaped the more negative psychoses of New Orleans. That makes for an easy psychological break with the past. But he still has a lot to learn. He has the greatest potential of all the characters, in that classic bildungsroman/coming-of-age literary tradition.

As to the second half of that, I think there's a little tension, the kind that comes from the frustration of someone putting their own aspirations on someone else's shoulders. Kermit Ruffins isn't against fame and fortune. Like everyone else, he just wants it on his own terms. There are many New Orleans musicians whose talent deserves a proper airing outside the confines of the local scene. I've met many very gifted musicians who never leave. Those that do invariably return in some large or small degree. You need a great advance flank, but someone has to protect the crown jewels. I think most musicians are very respectful of each other.

PJ: Okay, so this show is obviously about musicians, and there's a lot of live music. The opening sequence, with the brass-band parade (the first since the storm) has two songs: one where everyone is dancing, and one where everyone stops under the highway overpass. There's Donald Harrison's set at the Blue Note. There's Kermit Ruffins' set at Vaughn's in New Orleans. There's the funeral parade. What worked best for you?

JJ: I have a healthy appreciation for Blake Leyh, a fellow Harlemite who is the music director for Treme, and every New Orleanian who added authenticity to the pilot episode. Rebirth Brass Band playing "I Feel Like Funkin' It Up" or "I Used to Love Her (But It's All Over Now)" under the I-10 overpass on Claiborne Avenue (another significant part of positive/negative history here — developer Robert Moses nearly killed Treme with that damn highway). We hear "Nouveau Swing" and "One for Bird," two of Donald Harrison's songs. Kermit plays "Skokiaan" and "Swing This." That's all very real. You could not create a story in New Orleans without it. Well, you could, but it would suck.

PJ: New Orleans musicians are also featured often as background: Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" is playing when we're introduced to Kermit Ruffins. Davis, the DJ played by Steve Zahn, plays Louis Prima's "Buono Sera," and it seems an inspired choice for the montage of nighttime in the city. Davis also blasts New Orleans rapper Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" out his windows. Ernie K-Doe is shouted out on WWOZ. When Albert Lambreaux's daughter is about to take off after dropping her dad in the city, "Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)" comes on, with no small measure of irony. Any specific reactions? What'd I miss?

JJ: Community radio still thrives in New Orleans. Ernie K-Doe had a show on WWOZ. It is the most surreal radio I've ever heard, and I listen to a lot of radio. Dr. John singing "Mama Roux" on Janette's kitchen transistor radio; Eddie Bo's "Hook and Sling" on the box at LaDonna's bar. DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) plays the opening riff of "Big Chief," an Earl King song — Earl also figures prominently in a dream that David has about programming his radio show. There are mentions of another Big Chief, Monk Boudreaux; a poster of pianist Henry Butler; a hint of a gospel song, "I'll Fly Away"; Mystikal's "Bouncin' Back" versus classical music; the petty theft of a Pinstripe Brass Band CD recorded live at Donna's Bar and Grill; and a Genius of Dave Bartholomew box set that includes his work for Imperial Records. Fats Domino singing "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" to great effect. Louis Prima was a Sicilian who lived in Treme; this is his centennial year. I also noted mentions of Ray Charles, Smiley Lewis and the Spiders, Lee Allen, and Cosimo Matassa's studio...

The episode comes to a very powerful ending with the musicians of the Treme Brass Band (featuring Uncle Lionel on bass drum and the leader, Benny Jones Sr.) and the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The last shot of the church steeple, the funeral procession and telephone poles that could easily be crucifixes slayed me.

As someone who loves this music so much, the hardest line to hear came from Bernard "Bunchy" Johnson. He's playing trumpet in the Treme Brass Band, though drums is his first instrument. Antoine Batiste gets out of a cab and asks how Bunchy is doing. The response was so real: "I'm just trying to get from this world to the next." Bunchy died a few weeks ago.

TV cannot hold its own against reality. David Simon gets the closest.

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