Sonny (as he watches drunk college kids walking by and singing): “That’s New Orleans.”
Antoine (as he watches NOPD units racing by, lights flashing and sirens blaring): “That’s New Orleans too.”
Coming into this season, HBO’s New Orleans-based drama, “Treme”, faced a lot of questions and doubts from many quarters. Fans of show co-creator David Simon’s previous series, the lauded “The Wire”, complained throughout Season 1 that it wasn’t like “The Wire.” Others complained that the musical numbers went on too long. And the big complaint that I saw many spout over the Internet: “NOTHING HAPPENS ON THIS SHOW.”
Well, plenty of things happened this season. To everyone. And each of the characters allowed the writers a window into a different aspect of the various sides that makes up New Orleans the city that it is – both good and bad.
Foremost was the view into the lives of some of New Orleans’ musicians – from the street performers to the producers and everywhere in between. Annie began her journey from day player to songwriter and found herself struggling with something many musicians find impossible to do – find their own voice. How the murder of her muse and friend, Harley, affects her and influences her will be a topic for Season 3. Sonny, much reviled in Season 1, fell under the wing of another band member, Robinette, who got him clean by making him work in oyster boats. His redemption was quick, but honest and it allowed Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer to hint at the next giant boulder to hit the Crescent City: the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that caused the BP Oil Spill.
It was amusing to see Antoine’s journey from reluctant band teacher to shepherd of the next generation. As his own band took off, it was easy to tell that he wanted to continue being the way he was – living on the moment, no concern for what may happen next to him or anyone else. He thought that his band would be the catalyst for the next step in his life. Instead, it is his teaching gig that becomes the more rewarding and acts as an anchor to get him to cement his life with Desiree and his kids.
Most of the characters’ journeys acted in similar fashion: they all were moved from one side of what they wanted to another and forced them to reassess who they were and what they wanted. Delmond Lambreaux went to New York to find a new sound and found it right under the tarp-covered roof of his father’s home – in the form of “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux and the traditions of the Indians. Davis McAlary formed his own band, got his own label started, then watched in horror as his creation became bigger than he. He eventually found himself forced to reconcile with the simple fact that he’s not a musician – not in the level of his band mates, friends or his own discovery, Lil’ Calliope. But just because you find you weren’t what you thought, doesn’t mean the world is ending. Davis’ ability to bring people together, to spot talent and to see more than the day players or the dreamers is a talent all on its own. One he could and hopefully will harness next season.
At the same time, the season was able to touch upon a few of the other major issues that plagued New Orleans the year after the year after. 2007 was the year crime returned in earnest to the Big Easy – a result of criminals returning en masse from where they had been evacuated and the vacuum that the storm had left up and down the judicial system. Murders like Helen Hill’s became the norm for a while and the violence that rose up and touched LaDonna and Harley this year was all too common. Likewise, the issues with the police and the district attorney’s office became common. As we saw through the eyes of Toni and Lt. Colson, the problems in trusting the NOPD, that had always been there if we’re honest, finally were beginning to boil over. In the background lies the investigation that will become the Danzinger Bridge Shooting case and the investigation that will end in this year’s Department of Justice scathing report on NOPD.
Tied into the rampant issues at NOPD are the greater concerns over cronyism and corruption that have plagued this city for decades. Into this world was plugged in show newcomer Jon Seda as Nelson Hidalgo, cousin to last season’s bouncer/roofer, Arnie. Nelson became an intriguing study in what the writers were trying to say about New Orleans and its culture. He is a power broker and takes on a number of roles for the powers that be. First contracting out to remove hurricane debris, then helping to buy up Mid-City property where it has been decided a new hospital will be built – a new hospital, by the way, that sits across from the still available Charity Hospital. But the powers have decided a new, multi-billion dollar hospital is what is needed and Nelson heads out to make it happen. As he moves up the political food chain and ingratiates himself to the side of powerful interests like former City Council President Oliver Thomas, he comes to taste every delicious morsel the city has to offer.
But does he care for New Orleans? Is he interested in its well being? Or is he just another carpetbagger who’s come to suck as much fortune and fun as he can before he too disappears and leaves nothing but waste and decay behind?
That’s one of the questions this season raised: who cares for New Orleans and what does that require? For Antoine, New Orleans are the children – his own and the ones he’s teaching. For Albert, New Orleans is his old home; the one he struggles with Road Home to fix. For Delmond, it’s that sound that he’s desperately searching for in old records. For Annie, New Orleans is Harley and her troupe of street troubadours. For Sofia, New Orleans was her dad, Creighton. And she takes on his causes with aplomb after his death, cussing up a storm on Youtube vignettes. It’s not until she finds out that he committed suicide and that her mother kept that fact from her that she turns self-destructive. While many didn’t like this particular storyline this season, it’s honest for the characters that Toni, Sofia and Creighton are – they’re each other’s world and seeing it toppled nearly fractures mother and daughter.
For Janette, New Orleans is home. And her journey, so far removed from the rest for most of this season, is used to show the dilemma many New Orleanians face: what to do when you can’t live here. Janette is plugged into the New York cuisine scene (the show leans heavily on chef/TV host Anthony Bourdain for information on this world) and blooms. Her talent is recognized by some of the biggest chefs in New York City. She ends up working with who she wants and cook what she wants. But every time she turns, New Orleans is beckoning her back: her sous chef, Jacque, and her old home the primary reasons. And even though things couldn’t be better for her, the magnetic pull down south is always there – in Saints games at a bar, in jazz music in a club, in fellow ex-pats like Delmond, who share similar tastes and likes.
It’s in there that the central thesis of “Treme” lies. “The Wire” asked how can American society allow such misery, corruption and failure to exist. “Treme” seems to be asking how can people live amidst all of it. Because trust me, the folks who live in New Orleans know full and well the problems that plague this community. The infrastructure issues, the rampant corruption, the lack of leadership at all levels, the social and racial concerns, the old-boys-network ways of doing things; these things were here before August 29, 2005 and have been here since. If anything, Katrina’s damage simply revealed the nasty undercurrents upon which everything was.
Still, the pull of New Orleans is there, beckoning old and new alike with its uniqueness. There’s a joie de vivre that few places have. There’s bars and pubs and clubs all over America, but how many places have performers of all kinds on its street corners. Every city in America has 52 Tuesdays, but only New Orleans marks one as special – to say nothing of the last weekend in April and first weekend in May or Fourth of July weekend or Halloween weekend or the many other days, nights, weekdays and weekends when something is happening.
As Season 2 ends, Davis, back at his DJ spot for WWOZ, asks rhetorically, “Where else would we go? Who else would have us?” He’s wrong. We could go anywhere. Most other cities would welcome us with open arms – we saw this happen during the Great Katrina Diaspora. Our chefs and musicians and lawyers and nurses and professionals were welcomed and invited into the many towns and cities across America where they landed. And many chose to stay. Life, after all, was easier in those places. Cost of life is cheaper, infrastructure works, there’s more trust between the community and its government, people can build new lives.
The question isn’t “who else would have us?” It’s “Where else would we want to be?” Because life isn’t about surviving day to day on where it’s easiest. It’s about living it where it makes sense. And the nonsense in New Orleans makes a lot of sense to us.