"Treme" Season One, Episode One: "Do You Know What It Means?" Review

4/19/2010 Posted by Admin

Television Review

"Treme" Season One, Episode One: "Do You Know What It Means?"

By our guest blogger, Rip Empson

Editor's note: "Treme" premiered last Sunday on HBO, with shows airing every Sunday at 10 PM. From here on out, guest blogger Rip Empson will be reviewing each episode the following day.

"Treme" (pronounced treh-may) is the brand, spanking new HBO series and passion project of writer/irritable magician David Simon. Named after one of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods, the show brings The Big Easy to life--in the way only an obsessive, stickler of a journalist like Simon could.

But let's get this out of the way at the beginning--I'm a huge fan of "The Wire," and consequently, David Simon. For those of you who are Philistines or have been living on a commune, Simon is the guy who spent 12 years working the City Desk at the Baltimore Sun, reporting on a city struggling with crime, corruption and the many other sunny afflictions that beset our modern cities. He channeled his experiences into "The Wire" with the help of college-journalism friend David Mills, ex-cop Ed Burns and novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price. But they were not done. They then adapted Evan Wright's novel, "Generation Kill," into a miniseries. And it was good.

I would even go so far as to say that "The Wire" is arguably the greatest TV drama since..."Fraggle Rock." No, seriously, best TV drama in history. Period. It is essentially a cop show, but as it details a different civic institution in each season (educational system, politics, etc.), it gives the eternal cop vs. robbers war its proper context amongst the many moving parts of the massive organism that is the modern city--and thus digs deeper than a "CSI: Miami" and its David Carusos ever could.

"The Wire" vilified civic institutions for rendering individual attempts at growth and change impotent. And, really, no subject was safe from Simon's merciless and grim exegesis. His disgust with the shameful degradation of the city's moral order is pretty palpable. To make its attack more effective, "The Wire" remained obsessively authentic, rarely straying from "factual representation" as it went about its nihilistic punk-ing. But what made the show singular was how, in spite of its viciousness, it was stubbornly sensitive to the plight of its human subjects. Without fail, Simon and his Baltimore posse gave the city's denizens (be they incompetent cops or child gangsters) a humanity and--I'd argue, love--that made it totally boss.

Naturally, when I heard Simon was making a new show with Eric Overmyer, I began to tremble with nerdy excitement. "Treme" would, no doubt, be more of the same. Right? Not exactly. If you're looking for "Generation Kill"/"The Wire"-type violence and war, you're outta luck, pal. Yup. Believe it or not, no one is murdered in "Do You Know What It Means?" Where "The Wire" was made a brutal Greek tragedy, "Treme" feels as if it will be made a celebration.

Simon recently told Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine (in a must-read article) that "New Orleans manufactures moments...it’s a tourist economy with something organic underneath, the best we can be as Americans: It’s a triumph of the melting pot, right down to the rhythms of the street! It’s black, it’s white, it’s Cuban, it’s Haitian. It’s our greatest export."

"Treme" is a neighborhood known for its music--some say even for birthing jazz. Bookended by a "second-line celebration" and a jazz funeral, and with appearances by Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (playing themselves), "Do You Know What It Means" showed that music will have a prominent role in the show's cast. Which should come as no surprise, considering its place in the cultural fabric of New Orleans. From the outset, the writers seem to be intent on showing that, though Katrina may have left the city's infrastructure devastated, the city's beat and mojo remain alive and kickin'.

Sure, "Treme" may be more of a musical love story than Simon's previous work, but that doesn't mean the creators will be pulling their punches regarding institutional incompetence. The story is set three months after Hurricane Katrina and offers plenty of reminders. Not that they're going to go all Kanye on us, but Simon does find a prominent voice to express his ire for The Man in Creighton Bernette (played by the great John Goodman), a prickly English professor unforgettably introduced to the audience when he loses it over a British television journalist's insinuations that New Orleans doesn't deserve to be rebuilt. Goodman excels at playing boisterous, fast-talking characters, and Bernette (like so many others) seem one injustice away from launching a television camera into a waterway--or worse.

Though Bernette is vocal in his resistance to the ruin and administrative ignorance around him, most of the episode is quiet in its desperation and stays away from the powers-that-be. My impression was that this sprawling, 80-minute episode struggled to introduce the sizable cast of characters and their stories, while giving New Orleans its due as the distressed and distinctive star of the show.

Simon has also brought along a couple of Wire alums, as we meet broke trombonist Antoine Batiste (played by Wendell Pierce, a.k.a. "Bunk") and Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters a.k.a. Lester Freamon) a stubborn bassist and Mardi Gras Indian who returns to a flood-ravaged home and decides to stay in spite of protests from his kids and the reality that staying will mean crashing in an abandoned bar.

We also meet local deejay and freelance guitarist Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a shabby stoner who works for an indie jazz station. The station is struggling to make money without losing its soul, and McAlary delivers a memorable rant over being forced into playing New Orleans classics for financial reasons instead of playing music people should be hearing.

A number of strong female characters are introduced in the premiere as well, including Janette (played by Kim Dickens), a local chef who is "casually" dating McAlary and memorably throws him out of her bar when he opens an expensive bottle of wine; Melissa Leo of Homicide is cast as Creighton’s wife, a civil-rights lawyer who is nearly as iconoclastic as her husband, though a bit softer-spoken--and begins a quest to find the son of LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Antoine’s ex-wife, played by Khandi Alexander), who runs a bar when she's not in Baton Rouge with her new husband and kids.

Already overwhelmed? There are quite a few cast members introduced in the premiere, and I will stay away from introducing them all. Still, I look forward to discussing the characters and narratives more thoroughly as the show continues. Since "Treme" premiered, I've heard and read some criticisms of the show that essentially contend that the show is too slow moving to be exciting or memorable. Admittedly, Nussbaum reports that HBO balked at "Treme" because they were worried not enough "happened." But I would advise people who felt this way (and I also did during some parts) to give Simon his due and be patient. Like "The Wire," it may be difficult to absorb all of the minor characters and relationships, but be sure that the rewards for suspending impatience will be worth it. The world will unfold gradually, but it will unfold spectacularly.

Lastly, the untimely death of co-creator David Mills before the premiere certainly hangs over the show ominously, but hopefully Mills' unique vision will live on and provide inspiration, rather than be a distraction and an omen for what's to come.

Grade: A-

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  1. Josh said...

    Great review. Can't wait to see the show.

  2. JLM said...

    Good stuff man. Great introduction for both the casual and hardcore fan. What do you think about the Wire carryovers? I've only seen episode 1 so far, but I'm a bit worried Bunk is headed towards the comic relief, carousing, talented, respectable but doesn't quite have his shit together role. Likewise with Freamon in the quiet, strong, stoic yet freakishly persuasive role.

    Too soon? Think Simon is headed in that direction? I sure hope not, I don't want anything this show does to discredit anything from the Wire. In fact, I hope not to even think about the Wire after a few more episodes.

    We'll see. Enjoyed reading.

  3. Rip Empson said...

    Thanks for reading, gents. I know what you mean about not wanting to think about The Wire after a few more episodes. At this point, much of my enjoyment is based on fond associations. I want the show to distinguish itself, and it has to a certain extent, but I need Bunk (especially) to set himself apart from The Wire.

    I think Davis will fulfill the doesn't-have-his-bidness-together role more so than Bunk.

    It's definitely a different experience watching a Simon show in the week-to-week than on DVD...the anticipation can make the unfolding of the plot, the action etc seem slow. Also a valid criticism of Treme itself.

  4. billy f. said...

    this is a good - and thorough - article. thank you for your accurately detailed explanations and reviews of both the wire and treme. each show is, as you say, boss. so is your writing and critique. i look forward to reading more as the series progresses.