'Treme' - 'Do You Know What It Means' Recap (Series Premiere)
by Sandie Angulo Chen, posted Apr 12th 2010 9:26AM
(S01E01) The opening title cards of David Simon's new HBO series 'Treme' (pronounced "treh-MAY," not "treem") tells you all you need to know: "New Orleans, Louisiana"/"Three Months After." I suppose Simon is saying that if you need to ask what "After" refers to (Hurricane Katrina, of course), then you shouldn't bother. Simon, the writer-producer-creator of 'The Wire' is back, and there isn't a 'Wire' fan alive who wouldn't want to see what he has up his genius sleeve for us this time.
Right away, the shots are close-ups of various jazz musicians, residents and cops preparing for a brass-band parade. There's a funny conversation with a musician negotiating his fee for participating in the main line, and then the parade starts, with its accompanying crowd of reveling second liners.
Late to the parade, because he can't afford the cab fare (a running gag throughout the episode), is perpetually broke trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native), who starts playing with a cry of "Play for that money boys, play for that motherf---ing money."
After the energetic title sequence featuring New Orleans musician John Boutté's 'Treme Song,' we begin to meet the rest of the cast's regulars. First is part-time lovers Davis (Steve Zahn), a DJ with encyclopedic jazz knowledge, and Janette (Kim Dickens), the owner and chef of a small restaurant. A naked Davis announces that the music they've woken up to signals the "first second line since the storm."
Another second line spectator is Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), who runs a bar and happens to be Antoine's ex-wife and the mother of his two older sons. She's grieving the apparent loss of her brother, who no one has heard from since he was arrested just before the storm hit. Helping her search for her brother is Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), a civil-rights attorney who's married to author & college professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), an outspoken critic of the federal government's response to Katrina.
While Toni smiles to convince cops to talk to her, Creighton yells and curses to any media outlet that contacts him. "Vinegar? No flies. Honey gets the job done," she tells him, to which he replies, "A big-ass fly swatter -- that's what f--ks up the flies."
Clarke Peters heads the show's most poignant subplot as Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian (the traditional carnival revelers who dress in colorful ceremonial Native-American-influenced costumes and perform in the parades), who is desperately fixing up a local bar in hopes of luring the rest of his tribe back home.
Al's daughter thinks her father has gone around the bend, so she calls her brother Delmond (Rob Brown, a jazz musician living in New York City), and begs him to come home and talk some sense into their single-minded father. Al remains undeterred in his conviction that resuming his Indian tribe's schedule to practice for Carnival is the way to heal.
Die-hard Simon fans will notice that many actors from his previous projects star in the cast. There's Pierce and Peters (both former 'Wire' detective), Alexander ('The Corner'), and Leo ('Homicide'). I've no doubt that their already outstanding performances are partly due to their familiarity with Simon and his crew.
Those who've seen Spike Lee's epic 'When the Levees Broke' will recognize Anotine's girlfriend Desiree, who's played by Phyllis Montana Leblanc, one of the bluntest, most memorable Katrina survivors in the HBO documentary.
Elvis Costello and New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins also graced the first episode, providing even more musical cred to the show, which already boasts regular performances by the Treme and Rebirth brass bands. Music lovers, jazz aficionados in particular, will be blown away by Simon and fellow EP Eric Overmyer's commitment to authenticity, which is the hallmark of all of any Simon endeavor.
It helps that Simon repeatedly casts regular folks (remember Snoop?) with sometimes indecipherable native accents to the drama. Just be prepared to turn on closed captioning if you can't keep up.
I was a late adopter to 'The Wire' and skipped it completely until the first season was available on demand last spring, at which point I heartily drank the Kool-Aid and devoured the entire five seasons in two months. With this inaugural episode, 'Treme' follows perfectly in the Simon canon of bringing a city and its diverse, coexisting residents, it's music, it's cuisine, it's tragedies big and small, to life. Already hitting just the right chords, 'Treme' finishes brilliantly with a funeral parade, where "broke-ass trombonist" Antoine repeats his chant, "Let's play for the money, boys."
Best quotes of the evening:
"This is New Orleans dog; the police never come. And if they do, they'll shove us out of the way and start looting their own selves." -- Davis, as he's about to enter a closed Tower Records to retrieve his own (and some extra) CDs
"This is not a natural disaster! This is a man-made f--king catastrophe of epic proportions!" -- Creighton, yelling to a radio show
"You're saying all you want is to get high, play trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans?" -- Davis, asking Kermit Ruffins why he won't bother to talk to Elvis Costello.