Treme, episode 1: “Do You Know What It Means” Written by David Simon and Eric Overmyer; directed by Agnieszka Holland. Starring John Goodman, Michiel Huisman, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Khandi Alexander, Steve Zahn, Kim Dickens, Rob Brown, Melissa Leo
I’ve been anticipating David Simon’s Treme since George Pelecanos’ last appearance in Phoenix to promote his latest novel The Way Home. Upon hearing about Simon’s follow up to his much loved, critically lauded, the Wire, I was intrigued, but in the same breath weary of the subject matter. New Orleans has become the entertainment industry’s cause du jour and I worried that the series would be nothing more than yet another heavy blunt instrument to beat middle class America over the head with to express the devastation of New Orleans as opposed to a portrait of the city’s rich musical and cultural history striving to come back as the series creators have been touting. So as I sat down tonight, laptop open, I held my breath and hoped for the same breadth of story telling as Simon’s and David Mills brought to the Wire.
Episode 1, “Do you know What it Means”, focuses on down and out trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) performs in the first brass-band parade, or “second line,” in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. The parade brings him face-to-face with his ex-wife LaDonna Batiste-Williams (The excellent, but too often underrated, Khandi Alexander) , who runs a local bar when she’s not in Baton Rouge with her kids and new husband.
After attending the parade, radio deejay and sometimes guitarist Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) blows a gasket at his station (which also ranks as the best speech of the episode, where Zahn expounds on how the mob would have done a better job of dealing with the crises’ as opposed to leaving it in the hands of FEMA) and at a defunct Tower records and then gets thrown out of the restaurant run by his sometimes girlfriend, Janette Desautel. (Kim Dickens)
Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) returns to the ruins of his home and the bar where he practiced, determined to clean up despite the skepticism of his son, a touring trumpet player, and his daughter.
While civil-rights attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) tries to track down LaDonna’s brother, Daymo, who mysteriously disappeared after Katrina and her cantankerous Southern character of a husband, English professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), rails against the forces that sold New Orleans down the river in the wake of the storm.
Much like The Wire, Treme is densely layered without becoming convoluted in its myriad of interweaving story lines. The filming style is as gritty and unflinching; the camera does not blink at the devastation, but yet looks beyond it and keeps itself focused on the characters—the people of New Orleans who refuse to let the city’s culture die—as opposed to turning itself into a preachy, don’t you feel bad that for all the city has had to go through, hour and a half long benefit special.
For me the stand out performance of the episode is shared by Clarke Peters and Steve Zahn. Both of their characters are ruled by their passion and are single minded in focus. Zahn’s scene at the radio station made me nearly burst into tears with laughter (and slightly nod my head in agreement. There is no way Carlos Marcelo—famed head of the Louisiana and Texas mafia—would have let the people of his adopted home city suffer as much as they did in the fumbling hands of FEMA.) and Peters’ parading down the street at midnight in full Mardi Gras garb in order to convince his long time friend to help him haul away the debris of his former practice space.
As a whole, episode 1 was a solid introduction to a series and its characters that I hope will become a rich of a character study as The Wire was.