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Review: 'Treme' Paints a Compelling Portrait of New Orleans in Season 2

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 21st 2011 1:00PM
The first season of 'Treme' (10PM ET Sunday, HBO) was a mixed bag, to put it mildly. Some story lines, most notably one featuring Khandi Alexander and Melissa Leo, were terrific. Others, especially a story line involving a druggie street musician named Sonny, made me want to put a fork in someone's eye.

Though some of the show's more annoying aspects, including its tendency toward lecturing and hectoring, were toned down as the first season wound down, I still approached the season 2 DVDs with a degree of wariness. Which side of 'Treme' would be more in evidence this year? Would we get a pedantic, condescending show obsessed with its own narrow definition of "the real New Orleans," or an emotionally nuanced, subtle portrait of complicated people trying to piece together their post-Katrina lives?

The good news is, this season, the latter aspect of 'Treme' is definitely winning this season. Some aspects of this show work better than others, but, in its generally excellent second season, the drama has cohered into a compelling, if sprawling, portrait of the Crescent City.

First, the deliciousness: You might make the argument that a story line involving New Orleans chef Janette Desautel's (Kim Dickens) exile in New York might as well be a separate show, but what a delightful and diverting show it is. Chef, author and 'No Reservations' star Anthony Bourdain is writing for 'Treme' this season, and everything about Desautel's existence -- the long hours, the pathetic personal life, the fearful atmosphere in the gleaming kitchen -- feels exactly right. She's working for a famous, and famously exacting, chef, whose magnetic, megalomaniac personality is clearly based on a real person or persons (let the guessing games begin!).

Eventually Desautel begins to interact with some of the show's other regulars, but the new season of 'Treme,' which is set more than a year after Katrina, takes its time about these things. And to its credit, the world that it has created feels rich and real enough that I am willing to give 'Treme' the time it needs to prepare this particular gumbo, as it were.

Pacing can still sometimes be an issue -- the third episode seemed about 20 minutes longer than it actually was -- but there are a few story engines humming away beneath the surface. Horn player Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a charming character who got little of note to do last season, tries to put a band together, and it's amusing to see him trying to corral a dozen "contrary [expletives]" like himself.

Leo is once again worth her weight in gold; with just one quick look at an empty chair during a holiday meal, she lets you know how much lawyer Toni Bernette is missing her husband, Creighton, who committed suicide last season. I'm not particularly interested in the videos that Bernette's angry, grieving daughter Sofia puts on the Internet -- her post-Katrina diatribes seem labored and overwritten -- but Bernette's investigation into yet another case of police malfeasance gives the season a quiet, necessary momentum.

One thing 'Treme' seems more determined to do this year is to show more sides of various stories and not just allow characters to rant and pontificate at will (well, they don't do that as frequently). David Morse returns as Terry Colson, an overworked cop who is not necessarily a bad guy and who helps Toni Bernette when he can. The realities of trying to police New Orleans are not avoided, nor are the deep-seated problems within the department. As is the case with Bernette, Morse's character carries an admirable moral gravity, and the actor gives Colson a great deal of presence in his scenes, which aren't frequent enough for my taste.

And, for what it's worth, that's my only real gripe with the second season of 'Treme.' I respect that the show is trying to paint a complex, multilayered portrait of the city, from City Hall to schools to sweaty clubs. But a few story lines seem expendable, and there are some supporting characters who get such short shrift that they're either uninteresting or they merely serve as cardboard stand-ins for ideas the show wants to get across.

Jon Seda, for example, plays Nelson Hidalgo, a hustling entrepreneur from Texas who, in the course of the four episodes I've seen, can be completely described in those four words. Nothing about the this wheeler-dealer is inherently interesting, which is a waste of Seda, but perhaps in the next seven episodes of the season he'll develop into something more than "ambitious carpetbagger from Texas."

Similarly, minor characters such as the priggish husband of bar owner LaDonna and Antoine's nagging girlfriend are so boring or repetitive that the show generally slows to a crawl when they're on the screen. As Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, Clarke Peters is, as usual, wonderfully charismatic, but the story of his tortured relationship with his jazz musician son, Delmond, would be more compelling if the actor playing the son had any screen presence. As for the bland Sonny (Michiel Huisman), his story line could be easily cut, but at least he's not horrendously annoying this year.

Never mind, we're all going to prefer threads that feature our favorite characters, and, miracle of miracles, one of mine involves Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), another character who made me stabby last year. Davis can still be a bit of a blowhard, but the deejay and musician has also got some winning qualities, and his romance with the talented fiddle player Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) is charming.

Those who venerate New Orleans and its music probably never needed a rationale to watch this show, but I asked myself this year: Does 'Treme' work even if you just mildly enjoy the music? Let me be clear, I'm not averse to the soul, jazz, funk and many other musical idioms on display, but the show needs to be dramatically interesting when it's not spending time on those pleasant interludes.

And it is. This year, co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer let their characters' lives unfold and collide in thoughtful, sometimes unexpected ways, sometimes in silent scenes that speak volumes: Davis cleaning his scuzzy apartment for his girlfriend's return, Janette walking through her wrecked house, Albert waiting with a set jaw and a box of paperwork at a governmental aid office.

And in her story line, which I don't want to hint at here, LaDonna provides the most compelling reason to watch 'Treme.' In her eyes, we see the pain and perseverance that makes New Orleans a continually fascinating, heartbreaking place.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Antoine didn't have "little to do." He played for that mother f----- money.
I'd watch Antoine paint a room for 30 minutes. I don't need all my TV characters solving murders in 30 minutes.
Sometimes characters do too much.

April 22 2011 at 11:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jolie Harris

Can't wait for season two. It still amazes me that the things critics complain about the most are the things most true for post-Katrina New Orleans, Thank you David and Eric for doing a great job telling our story. Miss you Ashley Morris. Who knew you were "didactic"? We thought we were telling the truth! Warriors of the truth. LOL!

April 21 2011 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd recommend watching the first season first - it's incredibly intense, and the 20 people crammed into our uptown NOLA living room for the season finale were in tears. Sadly, the most trying times for the city over the past 6 years were late 2006 to late 2009. Very excited to see how Simon explores the exploding crime rate, Road Home scandal and the heroin explosion at area high schools.

April 21 2011 at 5:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm curious, can you jump into season two of Treme without having seen season 1? This might sound stupid, but I mean it seriously.

April 21 2011 at 3:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alextvwatch's comment

I don't think it's a stupid question, as I wonder the same thing. I'm not sure why I never watched season 1 as I was a huge fan of both Homicide and The Wire. Just too many good shows on broadcast and cable these days!

So what do you think, Mo? Is there enough exposition to pick up the show now, or would it be better to get Season 1 first?

April 21 2011 at 4:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ilsa wagner

Mo, in your Game of Thrones pre-season review you gave Metacritic scores to the individual episodes you've seen. What would you give for Treme?

April 21 2011 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ilsa wagner's comment
Mo Ryan

Probably about an 80 for Treme.

As for whether you should watch the first season first -- I'm stumped! Not a dumb question at all. I'd say you would probably be OK jumping in to season 2. Truth is, I found parts of S1 a little draggy, and I wonder if people would stick with it and even want to get to S2.

If you do watch S1, just know that I thought the second half was better than the first half. So if the first few episodes are not doing it for you, maybe skip to the last 2-3 of S1.

Let me know if you jumped in to S2 -- how you liked it, if you could follow along, etc. Drop me a note at maureen.ryan (at) teamaol.com, if you want to.

April 22 2011 at 10:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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