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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
hat’s so sensational about “Treme” is how unsensational the show is. This is storytelling that shies away from phoniness, yet it’s unveiled via a medium that’s all about pretense. Now, that isn’t to bag on the rest of television, but you just have to tip your hat to “Treme,” which seemingly goes out of its way to break the established rules so it can do its own thing.
Season Two, which kicks off 14 months after the storm, sees the show heading into darker territory, with sporadic acts of violence erupting throughout the city of New Orleans. Meanwhile, the myriad residents that we came to know through their struggles in the first season are trying to move forward and get their lives back to places of normalcy, as the city itself enters the post-Katrina recovery stage. There will be food, there will be dancing, there will be misfortune, and there will be bliss, but most of all, there will be music.
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) discovers that he makes one hell of a band front man, and forms a soul revue as a result, but since times are tight, Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) pushes him toward steady employment teaching band to teenagers. The season shows a steady push and pull between Antoine’s very different professional lives. Can he live both, or will he have to choose one over the other? Perhaps one will choose him. Annie (Lucia Micarelli) pushes herself into newer and more challenging areas of music, namely songwriting. With a little help from mentor Harley (Steve Earle) and some encouragement from her new boyfriend Davis (Steve Zahn), she may just be making some headway. Speaking of Davis, the frustrated DJ sets out to mount a revolution through music by starting a band and a new music label with the help of his Aunt Mimi (Elizabeth Ashley, in the role of a lifetime).
The season spends some time in New York as well, with trumpet player Delmond (Rob Brown) feeling the pangs of being away from home and in an environment that’s being somewhat less than kind to his hometown. Janette (Kim Dickens), having been forced out of New Orleans, is also working her way around New York through various restaurants, and not all of them are pleasant. Yes, “Treme” steps up the food game this season with a fair amount of time devoted to the culinary arts, and chefs like Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, Susan Spicer and David Chang all making appearances as themselves. Anthony Bourdain is even given credit for script contributions. Ever heard of a Sazerac? Well, after a certain scene here, you’ll never forget it.
Then there’s the aforementioned dark side of Season Two – the hard-hitting violent stuff. It comes in quick, sharp bursts and then it’s seemingly gone, the same way violence is in real life. “Treme” doesn’t dwell on or glorify these moments, and when a truly despicable act is perpetrated against Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) in the first half of the season, it largely occurs off-screen. Then the show spends the rest of the season exploring the psychological after-effects. Likewise, the consequences of Creighton Bernette’s (John Goodman) suicide in Season One have a big role to play here, as widow Toni (Melissa Leo) and daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) are forced to deal with and confront the emotional toll its taken on them both.
Season Two also introduces a new character in the form of Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a hotshot Texas businessman looking to make some money off the recovery through developing of properties and land. The city and its people seduce him (both figuratively and literally), and he gets lost in the culture, in addition to losing himself in the political landscape, which seems to be an ever-shifting, and shifty, beast, which brings me to an example of why “Treme” is such a remarkable TV show. Oliver Thomas was a prominent Democratic New Orleans politician who served on the city council from 1994 to 2007, when he resigned after pleading guilty to bribery charges. Amazing it is then, that David Simon and Eric Overmyer convinced Thomas to play himself in Season Two, covering the period leading up to the scandal, as well as the fallout from it. He doesn’t just play himself in one episode; no, he pops up throughout the entire season, forming relationships with characters like Nelson and Sofia. What other TV show would or even could do this!?
Despite almost ridiculously low ratings, HBO continues to stick by “Treme,” and Season Three will be debuting this autumn. Assuming you have not, I plead with you, faithful reader, to spend some time this summer diving into this “visual novel” via the first two seasons instead of partaking in another round of some crappy reality series or TV competition (although I will concede that Howard Stern is quite a draw). “Treme” is for the TV viewer who’s bored and looking for something new and stimulating; the person who recognizes the value of character and culture over shock and awe.
Special Features: This set is very similar in layout and structure to the Season One set, although sadly, it’s missing the hard cardboard wraparound sleeve. I don’t think this is a case of HBO discriminating against one of their least popular series, however, as the recent “Game of Thrones” set, while more elaborately packaged than this one, was still rather flimsy compared to some HBO box sets of old. (It must be a company-wide cost-saving measure.) Anyway, this set sports commentary tracks featuring various members of the cast and crew on four of the 11 episodes, including one with David Simon and Co. on the 90-minute season finale. Also present on each episode are music-specific commentaries featuring WBGO’s Josh Jackson and NPR Music’s Patrick Jarenwattananon.
“The Art of ‘Treme’” is a 30-minute panel type presentation, recorded at Tulane University, and featuring Simon, Overmyer and Clarke Peters, as well as a couple other folks. “Behind ‘Treme’: Food For Thought” is a short bit on New Orleans cuisine, featuring several chefs, such as John Besh and Susan Spicer, and is followed by another featurette entitled “Behind ‘Treme’: Clarke Peters & The Mardi Gras Indians,” which is fairly self-explanatory. Finally, exclusive to Blu-ray are the pop-up features “Down in the ‘Treme’: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans,” as well as “The Music of ‘Treme’.” Both of these features provide a wealth of information, and particularly handy is the music feature, which, when you activate it, tells you the artist and the name of every song that plays, anywhere in a given episode. Every Blu-ray ever produced should have this feature.