DAVID SIMON’S “TREME”: A FITTING ODE TO THE CRESCENT CITY

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January 1, 2014 · Posted in Commentary 

Treme

Trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendel Pierce) embodies the spirit of the New Orleans’ music scene

By Bob Vickrey

Almost nine years later, the CNN images are still fresh in our memories—the rising flood waters from Hurricane Katrina forcing stranded residents of New Orleans onto their rooftops, as a stunned nation watched in utter disbelief. Days turned into weeks in the recovery effort as futile governmental rescue attempts mounted and we asked ourselves how this could have possibly happened in America.

The dramatic HBO series “Treme” concluded its four-season run recently and succeeded in effectively capturing the devastated and emotionally wounded city in the aftermath of Katrina.

Writer and producer David Simon has been accorded plaudits and honors for his earlier work with shows like “Homicide” and “The Wire.” With fellow creator Eric Overmyer, the two have created a brilliant homage to the people and the spirit of New Orleans in the post-Katrina era.

The writers successfully developed fully drawn characters that reflected the struggle of the people in that city to regain some sense of their former lives during the succeeding months and years following the devastation of the storm. The show has captured the indelible scars of the physical and emotional damage inflicted on a city’s psyche without ever giving in to sentimentality.

Simon and Overmyer offered an eloquent and moving love letter to this unique and beloved American city. Some have called David Simon “America’s Dickens,” but if that label qualifies as overstatement, few could argue that he has consistently shown the ability to breathe life into the characters which inhabit his fictional worlds. Simon has a unique gift for offering perspective on the underbelly of American culture. The show acknowledges the working class and the poor without injecting judgment. He has given voice and dignity to the everyman who struggles on both counts in today’s society.

The writers effectively captured the essence and substance of a city which is perhaps like no other in this country. The creators have brought to life the complex history of the people and cultures that have made this particular place stand apart from any other melting pot. In telling their story, the writers painstakingly blended the diverse ethnic history, the vibrant music scene, and the unique food culture. You can feel the music and almost taste the crawfish jambalaya. And oh yes, there was music aplenty in this series!

Viewers have been granted the opportunity of hearing the very best of New Orleans’ soulful blues and jazz. The series featured the music of the Marsalis family, Kermit Ruffins, Aaron Neville, Shawn Colvin, Fats Domino, Ingrid Lucia, Dr. John, and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. The narrative of the show sometimes took a back seat to the music and its seamless blend with the storyline worked remarkably well.

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Traditional celebrations helped bolster the city’s resilience and perseverance during the post-Katrina years

 Attorney and activist Toni Bernette, played by the brilliant Melissa Leo, continued her fight for the people of the city who owned no political platform and were effectively discarded in the clean-up effort after the storm. Bernette took her fight for the voiceless poor and displaced citizens to the corridors of City Hall, as well as an investigation into hints of internal corruption within the short-handed New Orleans Police Department.

Toni’s late husband, Tulane Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman,) had provided a seminal moment in the first year of the series (in 2010) with his YouTube rant, as he firmly and systematically excoriated local authorities and the federal government for their feeble and ineffectual response to a city which had been left in shambles. The tempestuous and disillusioned Professor Bernette provided a therapeutic moment for an American audience that likely understood the pure frustration and passion behind his words. The professor eventually became so despondent about his beloved city’s future that he took his own life, slipping quietly into the murky waters of the Mississippi River from the ferry boat he had boarded.

Treme is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and one that is historically important as a source of African-American music and culture. The portrayal of Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) conveyed the importance of cultural continuity that had sustained the neighborhood for decades. His relentless drive to rebuild his house and sew his elaborate and colorful Mardi Gras costume ultimately gave hope to his family and his neighbors that life would eventually return to normal. While others had given up and moved on, Big Chief pushed on with his work. His perseverance provided a metaphor for the indomitable spirit of a city that refused to abandon hope for its future.

Each of the many ensemble roles lent an authenticity to this unique place that has always stepped to the beat of its own drummer. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) has taken us behind the musical scene as a small time trombonist hustling work in nightclubs—or if necessary, even in funeral parades. Chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) gave us an inside look into the kitchens of New Orleans’ finest restaurants and the fundamental dedication in the preparation and perpetuation of its famous Creole dishes.

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Chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) gives us a glimpse of traditional New Orleans’ food culture

The arrival of greedy out-of-town developers who cared more about quick profits than the preservation of traditional New Orleans history and culture provided a chilling subplot. There were ongoing backroom deals struck by developers and city planners who were willing to forgo tradition for the opportunity of pocketing small fortunes during the rebuilding effort.

These were flawed human beings portrayed in this earthy, romantic, but unsentimental look at a city awaiting its rebirth, but we were allowed to glimpse redemptive qualities of “Treme’s” characters at their very core. The last season began with Sam Cooke’s haunting melody “A Change is Gonna’ Come” as a backdrop for those last episodes. The message of the song seemed to signal the first hints of hope for many of the characters we’ve followed throughout the series.

David Simon created a tour de force with “Treme” and with his partner Eric Overmyer, produced words and images expressing what innumerable faceless and voiceless citizens endured during their nightmare. The series has represented an affectionate salute to the city of New Orleans that honored its people with a gift of dignity and hope that they so richly deserve.

Bob Vickrey’s columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades,

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