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August 1, 2014

'Treme' Gets Up Close and Personal

by Chris Jancelewicz, posted Apr 9th 2010 1:36PM


When dealing with serious and potentially flammable subject matter, especially something as cataclysmic as 2005's Hurricane Katrina, a TV show has to tread carefully. 'Treme', a 10-episode HBO miniseries focusing on post-Katrina New Orleans, does not tread at all. Instead, it dives deep under the floodwaters and resurfaces with the corpses of those dead and gone -- lest we forget the immense tragedy that unfolded there.

Where most shows would exploit the exploitable (the riots, the pillaging, images of dying or dead people, the Dome), 'Treme' takes a raw look at the aftermath through a series of vignettes. The viewer follows different families and individuals as they try to put the pieces back together. Sometimes those pieces are tangible, like the rotting structure of a flood-damaged home, and sometimes they're purely emotional, like the trauma caused by a relative missing for months.

When dealing with serious and potentially flammable subject matter, especially something as cataclysmic as 2005's Hurricane Katrina, a TV show has to tread carefully. 'Treme', a 10-episode HBO miniseries focusing on post-Katrina New Orleans, does not tread at all. Instead, it dives deep under the floodwaters and resurfaces with the corpses of those dead and gone -- lest we forget the immense tragedy that unfolded there.

Where most shows would exploit the exploitable (the riots, the pillaging, images of dying or dead people, the Dome), 'Treme' takes a raw look at the aftermath through a series of vignettes. The viewer follows different families and individuals as they try to put the pieces back together. Sometimes those pieces are tangible, like the rotting structure of a flood-damaged home, and sometimes they're purely emotional, like the trauma caused by a relative missing for months.

'Treme' is about as honest as you can get. From the masterminds behind critically-acclaimed 'The Wire' (David Simon and Eric Overmyer), this show is just as compelling and unsettling. The New Orleans inhabitants we meet trying to rebuild their lives, who refer to Katrina only as "The Storm," undergo varying degrees of suffering, though each story is dealt with in equal measure. The victims are black, white, rich, poor, young and old. The Storm did not discriminate, and neither does 'Treme'.

We meet Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a talented trombonist with different baby mamas who scrounges to make ends meet; LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), Antoine's ex, who's concerned about the mysterious disappearance of her criminal brother; Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), an underpaid and under-respected civil rights lawyer; Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), Toni's husband, a professor and local history buff with his finger on the panic button; Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a rebellious failure of a disc jockey out to make it big; and Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a restauranteur and chef trying to keep her business afloat -- and these are only some of the characters. This rich cross-section of different lives is fascinating and engaging, particularly the scenes with Goodman, Dickens, and Pierce.

But 'Treme' is not all doom and gloom as you'd expect it to be. Instead, there is humour interlaced throughout, like when Creighton launches a visiting British journalist's microphone into the river after calling him a "Limey bastard", or when Davis unsuccessfully tries to befriend Elvis Costello at a bar. Adding to this ingenious mix of sorrow and lightheartedness is the infusion of music, an integral element of New Orleans culture, and undoubtedly part of the city's backbone. The episodes aren't just peppered with lively (and sometimes morose) jazz, they're built around it. Not only are the characters dependent on music to survive, but it seems to be the lifeblood of New Orleans itself.



While we get to know the characters over the first couple of episodes, we also hear the music, eat the food -- know what a Hubig's Pie is? Now I do -- and are immersed in the staid and stoic culture of a city that refuses to die. Perhaps that's the greatest achievement of 'Treme': there's absolutely no mention of the name Katrina by the cast of characters, but we see the floodlines on the walls, the car carcasses strewn around the streets, the rotted wood pillars of homes that used to stand. We know the storm was there, we know it devastated the nation and the world at large. Why dwell on that? The mark of a good show is in the showing, not the telling, and with 'Treme,' it feels like you're there with the citizens of New Orleans, bringing the city back to life.

'Treme' premieres on Sunday, April 11 at 10 pm ET/MT on HBO and HBO Canada.

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