Monday, May 24, 2010
Treme No. 4: At the Foot of Canal Street
By Edward Copeland
Due to the frustrating nature of television scheduling, two of the best series currently airing, Breaking Bad and Treme, premiere their new episodes opposite each other Sunday nights. To further complicate my life, HBO only airs on digital cable in my area, meaning that I do not have it in the bedroom where my health confines me.
Deciding to try to make the best of a bad situation (and because I'm not supposed to leave my position of lying flat any more than possible), I had my parents save up Treme episodes on the DVR in the living room, planning to watch the next three episodes in one sitting as I had with the first three. Unfortunately, technology interfered. My parents, who hardly ever use the DVR, had not noticed that something had gone wrong with the DVR, perhaps attributable to the frequent thunderstorms of late we've been having. Boy, I miss the good old days of VCRs (and when HBO was on basic cable when I could watch it in my bedroom).
Thankfully, the kind people at HBO had DVDs of episodes four through six of Treme and sent them to me the same way they had with the first three episodes and I can say without reservation that David Simon's latest series just gets better as it goes along. Originally, I planned to tackle episodes four through six at the same time, but health woes and other constant interruptions prevented me from having the time to complete the writing side of the task, so today I'm just tackling episode four with the hope of discussing the other two on Tuesday. As for the last four episodes, a friend who still has a VCR is going to be taping them for me, so I can write about it again once the season is complete.
The last time I wrote about Treme, I basically gave a preview of the series based on those first three episodes that I'd seen, but for this outing, I want to explore the series more in depth by each of the three new episodes I've viewed. One piece of very good news since then is that HBO renewed it for a second season after the first episode aired. As I said in my original review, Treme is not really a series where you worry about spoilers because that's not the type of show it is. Still, I will discuss developments in detail, just in case you don't want to know, even though the seventh episode has aired by the time I've posted this.
Last time we saw Antoine Baptiste (Wendell Pierce), the philandering trombonist, he'd been mistakenly picked up by some overzealous cops who gave him a beating and seized his horn. We find him now sitting in one of New Orleans' only two emergency rooms (the series began three months after Katrina, in case you've forgotten), waiting for someone to assess the damage to his face. Angry and bored, he eventually gets his fellow patients-to-be to join in a sing-a-long about wanting to be buried with his "mouthpiece and his bone." He shares the bad news about his busted lip and need for corrective dental work with his ex LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), who offers him a free meal at her tavern and reminds him that there is a dentist in their extended family by way of her husband Larry (Lance E. Nichols). Antoine shows his trepidations about a trip to Baton Rouge, not only to impose on his ex-wife's second husband but to be forced to see his two sons around Christmas time. Besides, without his trombone, there's no instrument to play and no work to be found. Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) continues to press the police about what happened to Antoine's missing horn and Antoine reluctantly agrees to the Baton Rouge trip where he gets the dental work done and shares a very awkward dinner with his sons after giving them gifts that aren't quite right. The boys ask to meet the baby sister they've never seen, but Antoine puts them off before later boarding the bus for the return trip to New Orleans. Antoine is quite a different character than The Wire's Bunk, but Pierce plays him as if he was born for the part, never hitting a false note.
Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), as with many residents of post-Katrina New Orleans, finds himself getting screwed by the people he's paid home insurance to, in his case for 34 years, because the company's attitude is that the flood caused the damage to his house, not the hurricane, and he didn't have flood insurance. A justifiably indignant Albert asks his insurance rep how he gets to sleep at night to which the man replies, "I drink" indicating someone who knows his company is doing wrong to its customers and he wishes he could help, but there isn't anything he can do. Albert returns to help Robinette (Davi Jay) with his salvage work and sees young Darius (Marc John Jeffries) getting some pay and walking away early. He does good work, Robinette explains, but he doesn't like tax his back. Later, Darius wanders by the tavern where Albert and his tribe are rehearsing and the boy can't help but join in by tapping a spoon against a beer bottle. When his angry aunt Lula (Tarra Riggs) searching for her nephew finds him there, it takes Albert to assure her that he was behaving himself and he gets a dinner invitation out of it. While Lulu approves of Darius' new, older friends, the same can't be said for the grandmother of Albert's late friend Jesse who sends words that she doesn't want any of the tribe to speak at Jesse's funeral because she found them "disreputable." Albert respects her wishes and stays mum at the funeral, but he does take note of the abandoned projects, largely spared by the storm but still uninhabited. I know Wire fans, you can't help but think he's gonna find Marlo's bodies there, but this is a different show, even though on the surface you can see many similarities between his role as Lester on The Wire and Albert here, in their abilities to be smooth and indignant and to get lost in the details of work, be it Lester's models or Albert's tribal costumes.
Street musician Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who already has shown signs of an inferiority complex to his infinitely more talented girlfriend/partner, violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli) gets an offer from two friends to take a road trip to Houston to play keyboards at a gig there. He's uncertain at first, as is Annie, but he reassures her that at least it's for some real money and he decides to take the trip, though he makes her promise not to play with any other piano players while he's gone because that would be like "cheating." Once in Houston, Sonny only gets to play on one song before a more experienced keyboard player is spotted and he wanders outside, depressed and begins chatting with a guy who offers him some drugs. He's soon speaking to the bouncer Arnie (Jeffrey Carisalez), who admits he's never been to New Orleans and Sonny decides that's a travesty. Annie keeps her word, though she does join in for some tunes with a mandolin and guitar player she meets. Later, Annie admits to her new friends that she came to New Orleans after dropping out of Conservatory in New York when she met Sonny in Europe. Much later, Annie is invited to sit in with the larger group which includes a piano player, something Sonny sees as he arrives back in town, stoned with the bouncer in tow. I have faith enough in Simon that at some point I will see the point in the characters of Sonny and Annie, but my guess at this point is that they represent the outsiders who adopt New Orleans as their own since Sonny hails from Amsterdam and we know Annie was going to school in New York. Aside from the moments when Micarelli is making music, I find them part of the least interesting part of an otherwise great show.
Two characters who never disappoint and make for one of TV's most believable married couples are Leo and John Goodman as the Bernettes. As Toni is keeping busy in her search for both Antoine's missing trombone and LaDonna's misplaced brother, Creighton is spending most of his holiday break from the university never getting out of his bathrobe. He's trimming the tree when we meet him in this episode, though Toni is encouraging him to work on his long-overdue book or at least get out of the house. However, Creighton is too fascinated by this new thing called YouTube that he discovered when his daughter posted a message from school. He re-watched George W. Bush's speech from Jackson Square, just to get himself worked up again. Later, he's ready to take to the Web himself and records his first YouTube rant.
When he actually does venture out later, he's surprised to learn that he has become a bit of a local celebrity as his fellow New Orleans citizens cheer him on. At first, he's uncertain how to take it, but eventually it elicits a wide grin from him.
Looks can be deceiving at Desautel's, where Janette (Kim Dickens) serves packed houses of diners every night but still faces financial woes and other problems, such as water that keeps creeping into her gas lines, forcing her to light up butane burners to prepare the meals. When the same problem occurs again later that evening, knowing the gas company won't get out to fix it in time, Janette finds herself forced to cancel that night's reservations. "What are we doing?" she asks to no one in particular before deciding that she is going to go out and get drunk. As she is out drowning her sorrows, she runs into Davis (Steve Zahn) and they commiserate over the incompetence of the rebuilding efforts, particularly by Entergy, the gas company. Their nice moment though takes a downturn when Annie wanders in and Davis gets flirtatious with her much to the annoyance of Janette, despite her and Davis' on again/off again relationship and the fact that Annie soon departs, showing little interest in McAlary.
The only other character I'm finding it hard to get a connection to is Delmond (Rob Brown), Albert's successful jazz musician son. In this episode, he visits his manager (played by Wire alum Jim True-Frost) who encourages him to set up a New Orleans-theme tour despite Delmond's insistence that while he may be from New Orleans, he doesn't play New Orleans. There are also some scenes involving him and a journalist he's seeing and the idea of monogamy, which apparently Delmond doesn't really believe in, but most of his scenes do leave me impatient for the other, more interesting characters.
Which brings me back to Davis. Now I've mentioned early that he ends up at a watering hole drowning his sorrows with Janette but what led him there that day involved hitting a pothole which flattened his tire, only to learn from a passer-by that Entergy had just been filling potholes with gravel. The man says he can take him back to town on his bike and he'll guard his stuff. He shows up at Creighton's to give his daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) her piano lesson and then gets Creighton to drive him back to his car, only to discover it's been broken into and his keyboard and amp have been stolen. After taking out his frustrations on some Christmas lawn decorations, Davis hits upon the idea of running for the city council. Among his first ideas: legalizing marijuana and taxing it in a plan he calls Pot for Potholes. I didn't realize when I first started watching Treme that Davis is loosely based on a real character and while some I've read have criticized Zahn as being the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, I find him great. Davis may resemble other roles he's played in the past, but none had nearly the depth McAlary has been developing and I think he's quite good. Besides, who else can say, "Oh, fuck" with such flair as Zahn does when his car hits that pothole.
Any person in a jam would welcome Toni Bernette on their side. She brings the same level of determination to an unjustly seized musical instrument as she does to a missing relative, in this case David, LaDonna's brother who was in police custody prior to Katrina and seems to have been lost somewhere within the bowels of the system. Toni had already discovered that a man wearing David's bracelet was not David at all and in this episode, she proves it through fingerprints. David's bracelet is being worn by a man named Keevon White (Anwan Glover, Slim Charles on The Wire) who is awaiting trial for murder. He admits to Toni, LaDonna and David's mother (Venida Evans) that they swapped bracelets on the bridge because he knew David couldn't handle jail (not to mention it gets Keevon jailed on less serious charges). However, Keevon refuses to sign any statements affirming the mistaken identity and merely wishes the women good luck in locating the missing David. On a show full of great performances, Khandi Alexander may be the MVP with Melissa Leo not far behind.