More than a year has passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and the citizens of New Orleans are still struggling to return to something resembling a state of normalcy. Crime is on the rise, and corruption--in both the political and economic realms--threatens to cripple the cityís efforts to rebuild.
Reviewing an individual season of the HBO series Treme is a little weird. Itís a little like reviewing ten chapters of a forty-chapter novel, and whatís the point in that? This series--created by The Wire mastermind David Simon and frequent collaborator Eric Overmyer--is as close to a novelistic undertaking as youíre likely to find on television (not counting those actually adapted from novels).
The show isnít afraid to take its own sweet time, drawing plotlines out for as long as it sees fit. The cast of characters is large, and their stories are often nothing more than extended slices of their everyday lives. Only by taking the series as a whole (likely to be four seasons; the third is set to debut later this year) will anyone be able to make any sort of true call on its worth. But you gotta do what you gotta do, so here we are.
The Wire used different facets of life in Baltimore to paint a portrait of that city, and Treme takes something of a similar approach. But seeing as how New Orleans is like no other city, the manner of storytelling here is like that of no other show. Only one of the showís storylines is the sort of thing youíd find fueling a more conventional narrative, but itís not given precedence over anything else.
And music is the glue that holds everything together. It probably shouldnít work. Truth be told, there are times it doesnít, but if youíre willing to set aside any preconceived notions about episodic television, and if youíre able to give yourself over to the showís odd rhythms and preoccupations, itís vastly entertaining.
With one notable exception (which Iím not about to spoil, even if it is more or less common knowledge), all of the major characters from Season One return. Not much has changed in their lives since we last saw them; theyíre all still working to put their individual houses back in order (both figuratively and literally).
Davis (Steve Zahn) continues to wander aimlessly, bouncing from job to job and scheme to scheme. Heís still in a relationship with street musician Annie (Lucia Micarelli), who continues to search for bigger and better ways to showcase her art. Sonny (Michiel Huisman), Annieís ex, despondent over their breakup and his inability to find a steady gig, continues his downward spiral into addiction.
Trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) continues his quest to find the perfect band, refuses to give up his wandering eye, and is forced to take a job teaching music to junior high students. Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) works to bring to justice local cops who committed crimes during the evacuations, all while trying to rein in Sofia (India Ennenga), her teenage daughter. LaDonna Williams (Khandi Alexander) finally has her bar back in working order, but she soon finds herself a victim of the cityís dark side.
Having missed the previous yearís festivities, Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) prepares for Mardi Gras, while son Delmond (Rob Brown), who has moved to New York in hopes of furthering his music career, prepares to record an album that will fuse modern and New Orleans jazz. And Janette (Kim Dickens) has moved to New York, where sheís a chef in an upscale restaurant; the sirenís call of her hometown, though, is always in her ears.
Got that? Good. Now here are a few more: David Morse, who appeared in couple Season One episodes, gets bumped to regular here, returning as Terry Colson, an NOPD officer helping Toni look into the possible murder of a civilian by Orleans cops. Jon Seda turns up as Nelson Hidalgo, a Dallas-born businessman who uses political connections to weasel his way into a contract removing debris. And Elizabeth Ashley has a small part as Davisís wealthy, free-spirited aunt; the two of them attempt to start a record label.
Each episode shifts back and forth between all of these characters. Thereís no single focal point here, no major plot or character around which the other plots and characters orbit. If the show has a true central character, itís New Orleans itself. The individual characters can be seen as facets of the cityís personality, its drive, determination, anger, love of tradition, post-storm uncertainty, etc. So I suppose you could say the show is a love letter to New Orleans, but one that isnít afraid to shine a light on the cityís dark underbelly (any show afraid or unwilling to do so would be disingenuous).
Although the sort of crosscutting you get here typically imbues visual storytelling with a frenetic pace, Treme somehow manages to move at a speed all its own. Itís languid at times, stretching what would be throwaway moments in any other story into lengthy centerpieces; conversely, what you might expect to be points of steady focus are dealt with in a few seconds (and those seconds are often silent).
The only time the show becomes anything approaching frenzied is during some of its New York scenes. The editing becomes hectic and choppy whenever we see a harried Dickens slaving away under the eye of her egomaniacal Big Apple boss, an obvious contrast to the way things are done in New Orleans. (A few scenes have Peters visiting Brown in New York; the editing in these scenes strikes a balance between the two citiesí ways of life.) You have to be patient with the show, allow yourself to adjust to the rhythm.
Much like a good book teaches you how to read it as you go along, you learn how to watch Treme. This isnít a show to marathon or barrel through, but is instead one to be dipped into, to be experienced in individual chunks. As absorbing as it can be, the show is perfect for once-a-week viewings.
The acting is uniformly excellent, which helps the smooth the ride over the showís rough spots. Iím still not sure Simon and Overmyer know what to do with Davis any more than Davis knows what to do with himself. The storyline in which Zahn and Ashley attempt to make a star out of a local rapper doesnít really go anywhere. Sofiaís rebellious-teenager subplot seems perfunctory. And thereís never any question whatís going to happen with Janette; stretching it out over the course of the entire season is a bit much.
Tying all of this together is music. Thereís more music here than there is in some musicals. But itís not used in a lazy, Glee-type way. The writers donít toss in some piece of preexisting music as a way of getting out of having to write dialogue or further characterizations.
The music is here because itís an important, indelible part of New Orleans culture and history. It means many things to the characters here; itís a catharsis, a communal experience, a reminder of who they are and where they come from, etc. More so than anything else--even food, if you can believe it--music is what binds these people together and equalizes them. Itís an odd means by which to provide a foundation for a piece of large-scale episodic television, but damn if it doesnít work (beautifully).
The series is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the 1080p transfers have been encoded with AVC, and the eleven episodes are spread across four 50GB discs. Unlike most series, Treme is shot on film. It shows. The image here has the deep warmth you get from film, and dark shots and nighttime scenes are graced with the sort of rich, inky blacks that even the most expert digital photography has a hard time equaling.
The quality of the visuals remains uniform throughout; whether a scene is bathed in shadows, lit by blazing sunlight, or given an intentionally soft appearance, it never looks anything short of excellent. Colors, which range from vivid, bold primaries to steely blues and rich earth tones, are flawlessly rendered. Detail runs high, often leading to the impression youíre watching a feature rather a television show. Thereís some mild moirť, shimmering, and aliasing from time to time, but itís certainly never egregious.
Lossless audio comes in the form of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. Dialogue sounds great, always clear, natural, and intelligible. Thereís a surprising amount of atmosphere in the mix, both subtle and overt; the surrounds do an excellent job opening up locations, adding sonic verisimilitude, and channeling effects.
But the biggie here is the music, which kills. It sounds nothing short of spectacular; whether itís being performed in a club, at an outdoor festival, in a recording studio, or on a street corner, it sounds exactly the way it should; nothing here is cheated--there are no polished studio recordings being passed off as ďliveĒ performances. The low end provides just the right reinforcement for dialogue and effects, and during the music it booms, thunders, and throbs.
French DTS 5.1, Latin American Spanish DTS 2.0 Surround, and Castilian Spanish DTS 2.0 Surround dubs are also included; English SDH, Brazilian Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Latin American Spanish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles are available.
Four of the eleven episodes here feature audio commentaries. Participants include creator/executive producer David Simon, executive producer Nina Kostroff Noble, supervising producer/director Anthony Hemingway, director Brad Anderson, writer George Pelecanos, music supervisor Blake Leyh, and cast members Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, Lucia Micarelli, Clarke Peters, and Wendell Pierce. Some of the comments are specific to their respective episodes, but most of the discussion focuses on the season as a whole.
All eleven episodes feature music commentaries. WBGOís Josh Jackson and NPR Musicís Patrick Jarenwattananon provide scene-specific comments--both general and specific--on each episodeís musical performances.
The following are presented in high-def:
The Art of Treme (33 minutes) is a Q&A session moderated by Tulane University professor Joel Dinerstein. Providing answers are Simon, Overmyer, and Peters.
Behind Treme: Food for Thought (9 minutes) offers a look at both New Orleans food in general and some of the dishes seen over the course of the series.
Behind Treme: Clarke Peters & the Mardi Gras Indians (9 minutes) is a chat between Peters and Otto Dejean, a real-life Mardi Gras Indian chief who also plays a minor character in the series.
The following are exclusive to this Blu-ray release:
Down in the Treme: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans is an interactive feature that provides pop-up trivia and information on the showís music, locations, real-life influences, etc.
The Music of Treme is an interactive feature that provides information on the songs in each episode. (Considering what little information you get--usually just the title and artist--I donít see why this couldnít have been incorporated into the Down in the Treme track.)
Given both the nature of the story being told and the way in which itís being told, itís still too early to determine if Treme is a great series; that wonít be revealed until the credits roll on the final episode. But one thing is already clear: itís a very good series.