David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s HBO series Treme beings with a simple title screen: “Three Months After.”
There’s no need to explain after what, because in New Orleans–the setting of the series–time is measured against only one thing: Katrina.
With Treme, Simon and Overmeyer introduce the audience to a group of residents struggling to put their lives back together after the storm. While most of the characters are fictitious, many could certainly exist in some form or another in the real Crescent City. And it some cases characters do exist: local musicians and chefs appear throughout. It’s these characters (both real and invented) that drive the story, with the rich musical and culinary traditions of the city as a backdrop.
The structure of Treme, with its emphasis on people more than plot, is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. The difference with Treme, however, is the catastrophic event that connects the characters to one another serves as a beginning for the story rather than an ending.
In this semi-fictional world of Treme, the audience grows to know and love an ensemble cast of characters that are uniquely New Orleans. Each of the characters (to name a few: trombone session man Antoine Batiste, street musicians Annie and Sonny, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, bar owner LaDonna, and aspiring musician and champion of all things New Orleans, Davis McAlary) are compelling, but the most compelling character is the city of New Orleans itself.
Katrina looms large over every scene. Treme: The Complete Second Season (available April 17th on Blu-ray) opens on All Saints Day, 2006, fourteen months after the storm, and focuses on problems that the real New Orleans is still dealing with almost seven years after Katrina swept through: crime, police corruption, a failing school system, and questionable real estate redevelopment. But Treme is as much a celebration of New Orleans and its culture as it is a reflection on the struggles of rebuilding after the storm. In one of the featurettes included in this second-season set, David Simon mentions the challenges he faced trying to convince a roomful of television executives what makes New Orleans so special. It’s a tough sell to those who haven’t visited before, so Simon uses Treme to illustrate exactly why the visitors to and the residents of New Orleans are head-over-heels in love with the place.
The series is filled with extended sequences of musical performances at real New Orleans landmarks such as Vaughan’s, Bullet’s Sports Bar, and Tipitina’s. And other non-musical locations such as Fair Grounds Race Course and The French Market only enhance the authenticity of Treme. The series offers viewers a chance to learn more about the city’s traditions–Mardi Gras Indians, for example. Traditions that have nothing to do with stereotypical Fat Tuesday activities of getting drunk or naked on Bourbon Street. And season two ends (fittingly) with another New Orleans tradition: Jazz Fest.
￼This Blu-ray set offers a number of extras that serve to further educate viewers about New Orleans, its culture, and its cuisine.
The Art of Treme (33:03) is a Tulane University symposium with David Simon, Eric Overmeyer, Clarke Peters, New Orleans performance artist Gian Smith, and professor Beretta Smith-Shomade. Tulane professor Dr. Joel Dinerstein leads the discuss, which touches briefly on several topics, including the participatory nature of New Orleans culture, Overmeyer and Simon’s approach to filming Treme (using a character-driven point of view with very few establishing shots), and the idea that, at its base, Treme is simply a chronicle of American music. If there is anything wrong with this featurette, it is just that the symposium is not shown in its entirety–at several points throughout, the talk is interrupted by clips from season one of the series.
Another worthwhile featurette is Behind Treme: Food for Thought (9:21), which features New Orleans chefs John Besh, Alon Shaya, Leah Dooky Chase, Susan Spicer, Chris Rudge, and Kerry Seaton-Stewert. One thing this featurette makes clear: the importance of New Orleans restaurants in bringing residents back to their communities after the storm.
The final featurette on this set is Behind Treme: Clarke Peters and the Mardi Gras Indians. Mardi Gras Indians figure prominently throughout the series, and here Peters discusses his research for the role of Big Chief Lambreaux. Most of Peters’ education came from real Mardi Gras Indian Chief Ottojean (who plays George Gotrell in the series). This featurette has been available on HBO on Demand. While I don’t recall watching the other clips there, I suspect they were also previously available. Still, it’s worth having them in physical form.
The set also includes two interactive features: Down in the Treme: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans and The Music of Treme. Down in the Treme is an in-episode menu that serves as a built-in Wikipedia for the subjects “Music,” “Players,” “Lexicon,” “Locale,” and “Cusine.” If it’s mentioned in the episode, there’s an entry for it in the menu. The Music of Treme is perhaps the most insightful extra on the whole set; with this feature turned on, a pop-up with title and artist information appears during any song played in the series. The pop-ups don’t stop with performances, but extend to background music as well.
To learn even more about the music featured in the series, turn on the music commentaries for every episode by WBGO’s Josh Jackson and NPR Music’s Patrick Jarenwattananon. Jackson and Jarenwattananon offer brief histories on the songs and artists and often point out when real New Orleans musicians are on screen. Comments are mostly limited to music (and the two are sometimes silent during certain numbers), but sometimes focus on the moods and motivations of the characters. Since the comments are sparse, a visual on-screen cue might have been helpful to identify when Jackson and Jarenwattananon have something to say.
Viewers will also find four full-length audio commentaries by various cast and crew members.
￼• Supervising Producer and Director Anthony Hemingway, and actors Kim Dickens and Lucia Micarelli provide their comments for episode one, “Accentuate The Positive.”
• Director Brad Anderson and Music Supervisor comment on episode seven, “Carnival Time.”
• Writer George Pelecanos and actors Clarke Peters, and Rob Brown talk through episode nine, “What Is New Orleans?”
• Creator David Simon, Executive Producer Nina Noble, and actor Wendell Pierce offer their perspective on the season finale, episode eleven, “Do Whatcha Wanna.” For the purposes of this review, I only listened to this track in its entirety. Despite a few extended pauses here and there, this is a superb track. The best part is that the three participants are watching the episode together and mostly having a conversation instead of spouting off random thoughts. David Simon gives insights on several scenes by pointing out the subtext versus what is actually being said by the characters. Simon also makes an interesting observation about the use of music in the series: music may be essential to the story, but there is a conscious effort on the part of the creators to cut away from the performances so that the narrative is not jeopardized.
Since this is a Blu-ray review, a discussion of the audiovisual quality seems appropriate. Treme isn’t going to make anyone’s list for demo material. Much of the show takes place in dimly-lit and smoky bars and clubs — settings that are challenging even for Blu-ray. Close-ups of actors are mostly razor sharp, but the backgrounds suffer from quite a bit of movement. Brighter scenes don’t fare any better: the white walls of the 8th District Police Precinct, for example, or Toni Bernette’s makeshift law office, also show a bit of noise. Exteriors, too, are often grainy. Color saturation and black level are quite nice, however, and the beautiful detail of the Mardi Gras Indian suits shine through. All in all, the video wouldn’t garner high marks, objectively speaking, but wonderfully captures the show’s intended aesthetic nonetheless.
The DTS 5.1 Master-Audio track does well to highlight the many musical performances throughout Treme. Characters (and by extension, the audience) are often in the middle of a packed club during these performances. This isn’t a flashy surround mix, but it doesn’t need to be. Dialogue is clearly audible and centered (and there’s a lot of it here). But the track really catches fire whenever Kermit Ruffins or the Rebirth Brass band (or any number of other New Orleans standbys) are on stage. The claustrophobic nature of the club scenes and the feeling of a shared experience during the many musical numbers is conveyed beautifully.
Even though writing is enjoyable, it’s never particularly easy. Some writers struggle more with subject matter that isn’t of personal interest. I had the opposite problem with Treme. I truly love the series and had been threatening to put my thoughts on paper for a long time. I don’t think a show has ever touched me emotionally the way Treme has. It should be clear to anyone who gives Treme the time of day that it’s more than simple television entertainment. Perhaps the show strikes such a chord with me because I watched as family members were forced to leave home in the wake of Katrina. (Their former home, coincidentally, is visible during a shot in The Art of Treme featurette). My family was lucky enough to return after about nine months, but to this day life is nothing like what they left behind on that day in late August of 2005. I wonder if New Orleans will ever get back to “normal.” Post-Katrina is the new normal, unfortunately, and that’s probably why Treme resonates so much. I can’t think of another work that captures the daily life (both good and bad) in post-Katrina New Orleans as well as this series. This Blu-ray set has a lot to offer–the extras are particularly valuable–but the technical merits of the set are secondary compared to the value of the series. And notice I didn’t say “entertainment” value. Treme is entertaining, to be sure, but its value as a historical (albeit fictional) document of a Great American City continues to be a far more compelling argument for inclusion in any serious home video collection.
[Order Treme: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) now at Amazon]