"Still here. One day after the next."
David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s first season of Treme was marked by high expectations - the expectations of devoted Wire fans, the expectations of New Orleanians anxious to see the recovery to Katrina’s heartbreaking devastation accurately portrayed, and the expectations of music lovers to see, finally, a television show successfully harmonize story and song. Glee notwithstanding.
I asked actor Sean Gormley about his own expectations in going to New Orleans and making what is now an iconic Treme scene between outspoken NOLA resident Creighton Bernette and the BBC reporter. Looking back on the past ten episodes, it is this standoff that epitomizes the whole series so far, a situation that motivated New Orleans viewers of the season preview to stand up and cheer. The reporter challenges the frazzled Bernette as to what exactly is worth saving in rebuilding New Orleans, voicing many Americans opinions, from the outside looking in, about why poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward should be rescued and rebuilt.
The scene is at the one minute mark of HBO's "Making Treme:"
Sean did not have many assumptions coming into the filming:
“I expected it not to be too big a deal, just me interviewing some local guy - a small scene that perhaps would not even make the final cut, and if it did, that I wouldn't be shown much. It was only during my costume fitting that I learned my scene partner was John Goodman.“
This was a return trip to New Orleans for the Dublin-born actor who first went there as part of "The Commitments" band. I asked him how New Orleans appeared post-Katrina:
“We shot our scene by a canal in the lower ninth ward. The drive from the hotel to the set was the real eye-opener for me as we drove past the area that was one of the worst hit by the storm. You could see the water marks high up on now-abandoned houses. As many of the drivers and crew were locals, I got first-hand accounts of what they had been through.” (more of the interview can be found here)
A dramatic first-hand account of recovery is what Simon and Overmyer undertook this first season of Treme which wrapped up last night with "I'll Fly Away," directed by Agnieszka Holland who also directed the first episode. The season is bookended by second line funeral parades, this time a tribute to Ladonna's brother Daymo, another casualty of Katrina, much like New Orleans itself. As for Daymo's death, as Creighton says, it wasn't the hurricane, "it was a man-made catastrophe."
Daymo, possibly a homicide victim, wasn't the only a man-made catastrophe. Creighton himself was one as well. Suicide is not painless when viewed through the family's eyes, and there was not a scene with Melissa Leo as Creighton's wife Toni that did not invoke an audience resentment toward the professor for his selfishness. He did quit. There may be lots of anecdotal evidence for this storyline, however it doesn't make his family's grief any easier to watch.
As Joe Strummer said in his upended version of "Stagger Lee" via The Rulers, an admonishment to Creighton's despair:
"you must start all over again-all over again
don't you know it is wrong
You got to play it, Billy, play,
don't you know it is wrong
you got to play it, Billy, play
And you will find it is the right 'em boyo"
So many Stagger Lees. So little time.
Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary developed nicely throughout the season from one-dimensional obnoxiousness to redeeming moments of charm, but, boy, did he recover quickly from Janette's departure despite all his best efforts to show Janette all the reasons why she shouldn't leave New Orleans. It was a day that began with John Boutte and ended in the Columns Hotel where Pretty Baby was filmed. I was convinced, but Janette ultimately wasn't.
On second thought, Davis' resiliency, his ability to shrug off such a setback, is his charm. Exit Janette. Enter Annie. It is a parallel and contrast to the immobility of Creighton: "you must start all over again." Davis starts all over again every day.
Lucia Micarelli as Annie evolved too: a parallel journey to where her character's music leads. From Sonny to Steve Earle is a fantastic voyage. Might we see Lucinda Williams next season?
The ending flashback to the onslaught of Katrina counterbalanced an episode that wildly veered from cliche to cliche: Antoine losing his gig money in a poker game to a woman no less; do-gooder Texan, Mr. Reyes, fixes Ladonna's roof forcing Reilly to do the right thing; Lt. Colson wants Sofia Bernette to be "able to believe" that Creighton's death was an accident. Thank goodness this scene was in the hands of David Morse. One of the highlights of the episode, of the series, was acting greats Melissa Leo and Morse at Creighton's abandoned car.
Sonny has voiced some surprising self-awareness in the last couple of episodes: "you're so much better than me, as a player, and now you're leaving me behind." As a musician, this is as painful a truth as could be faced. Sonny had one of the most effective, quiet codas of the night - watching a taxi go by, sitting on the darkened street - a motif for the loss of Annie. Like Toni learns: "the truth doesn't set you free, it's just another burden that you have to bear."
The St. Joseph's Day meeting of the Indian Chiefs was magnificent. Or at least I thought it might have been. Shot by flashlight, this scene was murky with glints of brilliance and sequin. The gangs worked so hard on their outfits; I wished we could have appreciated them more in full daylight. There was one positive, a cliche avoided: the punch-up between the Indians and the police.
Have to go, there's "always more to do to be most pretty." Until season two, here are some items up for discussion:
How vacuous was the "Hi, I'm Paige" scene? Even the "nice tats" comment did not redeem that mess. As an addendum, the season started with Steve Zahn's naked rear and ends with Michiel Huisman's. A backend bookend?
Wendell Pierce as Antoine was consistently splendid, holding his own with a myriad of musical meta-stars.
Love the flashback to Janette back in Huntsville, actress Kim Dickens' real birthplace: Janette looks so much like her actress mother. Janette and Delmond sat next to each, waiting for their plane, heading to New York, an appealing moment. Now if only Jacques had come and sat down between them. That would have made for a perfect scene: chef and sous chef. Together, into the sunset.
And speaking of New York, was Treme at all for us New Yorkers? or Chicagoans? Or any of the other of the U.S.'s great cities? Or its great open spaces? If we can't truly appreciate what New Orleans went through, can we still enjoy a television series devoted to and written for the Crescent City? Musical and cultural learning curves were steep! But I did recognize Trombone Shorty without a prompt, so I am getting there, thank you Mr. Simon.
How wrong was I about Creighton's demise? Didn't think it would really happen. But then again, I thought Omar wasn't really dead either. Creighton's suicide made my Spalding Gray analogy that much more, unfortunately, spot on. Maybe the Moviegoer did Creighton in.
Was post-Katrina New Orleans conveyed more starkly, more effectively in Spike Lee's devastating When the Levees Broke? Perhaps, but I would argue the two works are complementary. An introduction to the culture of the Indians was certainly an asset to Treme.
Season one: It was a great start with a beautiful, vérité ending. Season Two? You must start all over again.
One more thing: we do take naps in New York. Wake me up in time for dinner.
Originally published on blogcritics.org