NOLA Contendere

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Actress Lucia Micarelli is seen between takes on the set of the HBO televisions series 'Treme' at the Chicky Wah Wah Lounge in New Orleans.

Take it from me that being a New Orleanian hasn't been all beer nuts and candy this autumn.  On October 1, despite screeches of futile outrage from us peons and crustier protests by civic leaders that ended in Burghers of Calais-style woebegoneness, the Times-Picayune shrank on schedule to three editions per week, leading one wag to dub the reduced version the Times-Methadone and forcing many to the back-alley indignity of resorting to the Baton Rouge Advocate for their old-school daily fix. Our vaunted (and reviled) football team is 1-4 going into its bye week, making the huzzahs for Drew Brees's ongoing string of broken records sound increasingly like, well, broken records.

Adding insult to injury, nobody outside the city limits likes Treme anymore. That's an exaggeration, of course. But in some pop-cult wheelhouses, the mere continued existence of David Simon's NOLA-set drama has become cause for derision. Seduced away by Mad Men and Breaking Bad's trashier appeal—kidding, kidding, and yet not—the Emmys haven't been kind, with just two nominations for Treme's first season and bupkus from then on. Since the 2010 premiere, viewership has dwindled by roughly half, settling in at some 500,000 diehards: pretty piss-poor numbers, even by cable standards. Forgive me if it sometimes feels as if around 250,000 of them live within a 10-mile radius of me.

If you suspect that my current zip code makes my opinion of Treme less than totally objective, I can't do anything but plead guilty—or "NOLA contendere," anyway. But it should be said that Simon's version of New Orleans is virtually the only screen depiction of the city I know of that routinely gets enthusiastic points for its accuracy  from residents with many more years here than mine under their belts. Back in the debut season, one of Simon's slyest hat tips to local prejudice was to have John Goodman—who once co-starred in The Big Easy, a movie New Orleanians generally dislike almost as much as the nickname that provided its title—mock the flick's inauthenticity to his TV daughter.

No question, it's a gas to watch a show set and filmed right in the nabe. You never know which joint you've hung out in or local luminary you've brushed elbows with will turn up on the screen next.  But the high wouldn't last—indeed, would quickly turn to annoyance—if the atmosphere, lingo, and incidental characters weren't nearly always so faithful to the reality. Nor do I believe that New Orleans is the only burg worthy of such treatment.

All chauvinism aside, I'm patriotically ecumenical enough to think that at least a couple of dozen American cities deserve a show every bit as loving about their particular foibles. And as true to their shitty sides, street crime and corruption being our fabled biggies. So I can't help wondering whether at least some of the rest of America's annoyance with Treme comes down to irritation that only NOLA rates one—a sort of "Geez,  we'd all like David Simon to cream over our music and cuisine, too."  If I didn't live here, I'd not only be pretty fed up myself with New Orleans's post-Katrina special status as America's pet city, but would probably have relished the way Bountygate took those uppity Saints down a peg.

Speaking of foibles, though, one aspect of Treme that's raised the most hackles is simply—and often, if you ask me, comically—true to local sensibility. Even reviewers too conscious of the show's virtues to dis it outright often express fatigue with how the dialogue keeps recurring to the wonderfulness of New Orleans. But while Simon obviously agrees with his characters, he's not sticking unlikely words in their mouths. The wonderfulness of New Orleans is a conversational staple here.

It's like complaining that shows set in Washington, D.C., feature too much blather about politics. Transplants and natives alike, we're as happy endlessly discussing the city's magic as Catholics are to ponder the nature of the Holy Trinity, and Simon is hardly oblivious to how ridiculous this can get. However often the scripts may end up vindicating his infatuation, Steve Zahn's hilariously gung-ho Davis McAlary has been the poster boy for the self-bamboozling, fatuous side of  NOLA idolatry all along.

Yet he's also arguably among the characters who've grown the most in depth. That's one reason I'm convinced that Treme's third season—which debuted on September 23, with seven episodes to go—is its best. Reviewers were sent all ten eps, so I've already gorged on the whole thing. Envy or pity me as you will.

Smitten as I was from 2010 on,  I still had enough critical perspective lurking behind my glazed grin to understand why the debut season's languid tempos, protracted music performances, and often murky character relationships might have been off-putting to viewers without any prior investment in the show's setting. At least in my case, the sophomore season was hobbled considerably by the loss of Goodman as Tulane prof Creighton Bernette, who did himself in at Season One's end from a combination of writer's block and post-Katrina despair. Even the advent of David Morse—how can anyone not dote on David Morse?—as NOPD lieutenant Terry Colson, signaling Simon's Season Two pivot to more focus on crime and providing Creighton's widow Toni (Melissa Leo) with a potential new love interest, didn't quite fill that hole.

This season, though, everything just flows, both literally and figuratively. Treme's tempos are still unlike any other TV series's, but the editing has gotten so sure-footed that even the sequences bereft of music play like it's there anyway. The celebrity cameos by real-life musicians and chefs have grown much less intrusive, meaning both fewer in number and more organically woven into the mix when they do pop up.

As for the show's fictional regulars, partly thanks to increased familiarity—the writing staff's along with the audience's—they no longer seem plugged in to represent this or that aspect of New Orleans life. Fans don't respond to Wendell Pierce as roly-poly trombone player Antoine Batiste because he's the embodiment of the city's laisser les bons temps rouler side or to Clarke Peters as Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux because he's a crash course in Mardi Gras Indian sociology. We respond because they're Antoine and Big Chief, and the same goes for Leo as Toni Bernette. No longer just our handy, outraged liberal guide to the horrors of NOLA's justice system, she's become someone who hurls herself into causes for the same reason she's ready to hurl herself into Terry Colson's arms—that is, because hurling herself into things suits her temperament. And so on down the line, including Phyllis Montana LeBlanc as Antoine's girlfriend. A one-note character in previous seasons, she's slowly turning into a fully fledged fight song.

In the nick of time, too. This season of Treme was in the can before Simon knew whether HBO would renew the series or not—they eventually did, but only for half a dozen wrap-up episodes next year—and I doubt it's total coincidence that its narrative arcs build and then fuse into the most sustained kiss-off to public indifference and institutional bad faith I've ever seen. (As The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum noted, meta is the word for a lot of what goes on.) Without risking spoilers, I lost count of the "Fuck you"'s on display toward season's end. Even as any number of characters try to do the right thing—including some not heretofore known for their interest in doing so—the system's about to shaft them anyway, and are they ever p.o.'ed about it.

If the implicit fusion of New Orleans's fate with Treme's felt remotely self-pitying, I'd be the first to scoff. Instead, it's just angry—and angry, I like. (Come on, you try to picture waking up every day to realize Bobby Jindal is not only your governor but ran for re-election virtually unopposed last year.) Written in real life by departed series regular Steve Earle but credited on the show to Lucia Micarelli's Annie, this season's anthem is a litany of natural and other disasters called "Is That All You've Got?" So if you think I'm being unduly parochial or sentimental about Treme, you can probably guess my answer.  Jockomo-feena-nay.

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