All photos by Paul Schiraldi, © HBO
Nobody can accuse HBO of not doing its part to shed light on the plight of New Orleans. They got behind Spike Lee and his mammoth documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and have since financed a follow-up doc from Lee entitled "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise." The former painstakingly covered the days and months in New Orleans after Katrina, while the latter traced the rebuilding of the city, the Saints winning the Superbowl, and the BP oil spill. Now, for most networks, this would have been enough. Some suit, when pitched the idea of an Orleans-based TV series, would've said, "We already devoted hours on the subject to Spike Lee. We did our part." Thankfully, HBO isn't that kind of network. If it were, we wouldn't have the chance to bask in David Simon's and Eric Overmyer's post-Katrina slice-of-life series, "Treme."
"Treme" just kicked off its second season on HBO, and being HBO, there are still opportunities to catch the first episode, "Accentuate the Positive," in case you missed it. The show has now moved its characters fourteen months away from the storm that devastated their city, and instead of things looking up, it sees the storyline going into darker areas than it dared to in its freshman year. Dave Walker, TV critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has lived in the city since 2000, so he not only knows a thing or two about "Treme," but also what life's been like for residents since Katrina, and how the increasing level of violence in the second season isn't a TV gimmick, but a true case of art imitating life. Bullz-Eye spoke at length to Walker, who's got a great deal to say about the show's new season. "It's dark because those were very dark days in the city."
"The headlines got pretty grim in the time that they're depicting," Walker continues. "The recovery just seemed to be dragging. Violent crime had returned to the city, after basically being non-existent for a long time. In a perverse way, it may be better television, because it has events and activity that people are more used to seeing in television drama. We didn't exactly hail those elements as something that would improve narrative inertia at the time we were living through them, but I think for people who are just trying to watch TV, it may be stickier, it may be more compelling, because it's got stuff they see in other shows. I don't know. It's a weird show to handicap for viewers who are watching outside of New Orleans."
Lucia Micarelli (below), who plays up and coming violinist Annie Tee, talks of the sometimes unsettling nature of the manner in which the show is put together. "Annie's not so far away from me. So much that it's creepy. I was talking to Steve Earle a couple weeks ago, and he was saying how the show is so much art imitates life imitates art. It's really strange." She continues on, almost aghast, with a reminiscence revolving around a scene from an upcoming episode – one which is rooted in a real life tragedy. "A couple months ago we were shooting the funeral of a young musician who had been shot. And they got his actual family to be in that scene, and recreate the funeral, and say their eulogies. I remember when I found that out, I was like 'This is fucked up!'" Her personal feelings aside, Micarelli recalls the sequence as being almost cathartic for the family members involved.
"David and Eric aren't forcing anybody," Lucia insists. "They wanted to be there. I met that family and I was like 'This must be so difficult,' and they said 'It is on one hand,' but on the other they were like 'We're so happy that these people want to tell the story of what actually happened to our brother…our son.' Because it was a murder, and it was fucked up and it was unfair, and as a result his sister became a big activist in town, and so she's like 'For me, this is spreading the word. This is what I do now.' It's just layers and layers of depth, and I'm totally in awe of David and Eric, and really, everybody [involved in the show]."
Simon and Overmyer are no strangers to exploring the criminal element and its repercussions through the medium of television. Simon created the critically acclaimed series "The Wire," and Overmyer wrote a couple episodes and served as a consulting producer on the show's fourth season. It's possible that "Wire" devotees who tuned in to "Treme" last year looking for similar levels of grittiness were let down, but with this season all that could change. Dave Walker clearly holds the former series in high regard, and as such, praises the two men for coming to his city. "Anyone who's seen all of 'The Wire' would likely call it some of the best TV they've ever seen. 'Best TV show ever' gets mentioned a lot. The fact that David Simon and Eric Overmyer would spend their creative capital coming off the show that's considered that on New Orleans and the New Orleans story is an amazing thing."
One of the most noteworthy shifts in the narrative tapestry this season involves the expanded presence of police officer Terry Colson, played by David Morse (right). He popped up in a few episodes last year, but this year has been upgraded to full-time player. Given that last season showcased the law enforcement sides of New Orleans in a less than flattering light – well, let's not mince words, the cops came off at best as bullies and at worst as corrupt – maybe it's time to see a different side of those whose duty is to serve and protect. If the days depicted in "Treme" truly are getting darker, who's going to combat the darkness?
"I think his expanded presence is because of the kinds of things that were going on in '06 and '07, and the kinds of things that are going on today," Walker explains. "Morse is a great actor, and someone who I think viewers will latch onto; someone who has to live with the duality of life in New Orleans as it was before the storm, and as it is now. The problems with the NOPD and crime in New Orleans is one of the foremost issues of life here now as it was then. I think that's what they're asking of that character, and how they go about it is going to be interesting to see."
Though "Treme" is ratcheting up the horror and hurt, it's still devoting plenty of time to showcasing lengthy sequences of great Orleans music. The ongoing playlist seems to be the one constant in this series – the tie that binds the residents together. Perhaps, in the disturbing days ahead, the musical numbers will come to be seen as a relief for viewers as well. "Treme," for all of its dense plotting and layered storylines, really knows how to jam, whether it's the soulful Subdudes, the raucous Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or the gravelly tones of Dr. John.
Micarelli can't claim to just play a violinist on TV; she's one in real life as well, and, with a couple albums under her belt, an accomplished one at that. She enthuses about the musical process of the series. "Every musician who's come on this show is thrilled about being recorded live. This is a really big deal. A lot of times on TV things are prerecorded, people are miming. It's really artless. You don't show up and feel like you're giving a performance. You show up and they're telling you to stand there, and do this and sing that and it sucks. So I know that on that level the musicians have come in and been really excited just to be able to perform. The show presents musicians in such a beautiful light. It's very rare that I've seen that. I feel appreciated and that what we do is honored. David and Eric and are such music geeks. It's insane how much they know. I think they're just having a good time with it."
Beyond the obvious breaks the music sequences afford the frequently intense narrative, what else do they have to say about the city providing the backdrop for "Treme?" Micarelli has some solid thoughts on the issue that go past simple good times and great oldies. "In the show music is used to represent the culture of New Orleans, and the sense of community. It plays a big part in what separates New Orleans from other cities. It's definitely a different vibe here. It feels like they've held onto their culture more than other places. They're more concerned about passing down information and stories and craft and talent. I think that's the role that music plays on the show – to show how the city really celebrates its roots."
The real truth of the power of "Treme" lies with the residents themselves. The show wouldn't amount to a hill of red beans if it didn't garner approval from the people whose stories it's recounting; the folks who've lived through the struggles they're now watching on TV every Sunday night. Walker is someone who covers and writes about the show regularly, and speaking of the city's reaction to the first season, he seems to be in the perfect position to gauge local customer satisfaction. "The people here are very suspicious of outsider attempts to capture the city in any idiom, but I think the people here sense that there was a real effort to get details right, and to tell stories that weren't off the page of New Orleans clichés, and also to kind of document the recovery. There were public watch parties - bars packed, people watching the episodes on Sunday night. The comments section on stuff that we wrote would be in the hundreds – people chiming in, saying what they got right, and what they got wrong. It's the most skeptical possible audience for a show like this, and I think they were by and large quite pleased by it."
Maybe it's the ultimate testament to the strength of the peoples of New Orleans that they can watch and appreciate the show at all. The wounds are still fresh, and as the city was forced to cope with the BP oil spill only a year ago, it's an American community that deserves a break more than ever. Simon and Overmyer appear to be doing their part for the city, the only way they know how. Micarelli, who was born in New York and currently lives in L.A., is, like most of us, an outsider looking in. "I feel like there's a lot of pain that's still very palpable here." Walker feels that the show needs to run the full four or five season arc its creators envision, most likely with the final season quite reasonably culminating in the victorious Saints Superbowl win, followed by the oil spill, which he feels put an envelope of sorts on the Katrina experience. "That said," he continues, "it's far from over. It'll be the rest of our lives, recovering from an incredible disaster. I could drive you hours through neighborhoods that are still utterly devastated – middle class neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods. All kinds of folks. The city is still missing tens of thousands of residents who've resettled in other places. I would be disappointed if it didn't go five seasons, just so these guys can tell that story."
"Treme" hasn't necessarily been a salve for the wounds of New Orleans, but it does seem to be a tangible rallying point for the residents to gather around. Its very existence says that New Orleans does indeed matter to the country, and maybe even the world. As for the rest of us – the mass of outsiders looking in? Behind the music, the drama and, yes, even the sudden bursts of spot on humor, it remains the most potently realistic character study on television today; an antidote to the plastic world of "Glee," a show which could be seen as showcasing the other side of the "Treme" coin. If the characters on "Glee" behave in ways that cause arguments amongst viewers, then the residents of "Treme" inspire reasoned discussion.
In the upcoming second episode of the season, "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky," which is directed by none other than Tim Robbins, newly joined couple Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) and Annie Tee sit on the floor of Davis's apartment. They are two music lovers, brought together by mutual interests and maybe even needs. They sift through stacks and stacks of CDs, merging their two collections into one. They realize that they each own a copy of "The Wild Tchoupitoulas," and Annie doesn't see the need to keep both copies in the home. Davis resists. Annie counters, "See, this is you not believing in relationships. If you don't get rid of dupes, it means you're worried we're gonna split." Davis is having none of this, and calmly argues in a geeky, music-obsessed way that only Davis can. It's a sweetly realistic yet funny scene, and anyone who's ever been in either of these two people's positions can relate to it.
On a larger scale, however, "Treme" does make us believe in relationships – not only those of the personal kind, but also the larger, community-based types. For now it'll be a pleasure to enjoy the show's second season, but by all means, HBO, don't lose faith when you've already done so much. Please bring us the rest of this rich story in the coming years as well.
You can read Dave Walker's coverage of "Treme" at www.nola.com/treme-hbo/.