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Although it took a couple of seasons for the general public to figure out that David Simon and his writing staff were taking on something larger than just a drama when they did The Wire, there was no such lag in figuring out that when the man created HBO’s Treme, he was going to mix sociology, politics, music, race and anthropology into a tasty bit of visual gumbo.
How could he not? Treme was about New Orleans post-Katrina — a story nearly begging for someone like Simon to tell its story, much like he did with Baltimore in Wire.
Season 1 of Treme was about what it takes to first care enough to rebuild one of the country’s great cities and then to actually do it. That he and fellow producer and New Orleans vet Eric Overmyer pulled it off by letting locals help create the ambience needed (musicians, actors, foodies, local institutions, etc.) added the authenticity that allowed New Orleans’ natives to hand down their seal of approval.
A lot of cable series spike in their second seasons as word-of-mouth spreads and latecomers catch up on the Season 1 DVDs and marathons put on by their respective channels. Let’s hope that’s the case as Season 2 of kicks off April 24 for its 11-episode sophomore turn. While it often seemed like the first season was primarily meant to allow viewers to soak up the ambience of the rich, varied culture there — and myriad horror stories of post-Katrina recovery — like much of Simon’s work, it demanded patience and trust that a direction would be found.
The reward was how the slow build of disparate stories came together — threads of hope, despair, resolve and a reliance on the spirit of the past intertwining and shaping characters as the season ended. The first season was set in fall 2005, three months after Katrina. It was (and still is) a story about survival, of not being forgotten when you are actively being forgotten or ignored by bureaucracy; the shock of loss; the reliance on tradition (particularly music) to salve the wounds; and the flickerings of a redemptive spirit.
Season 2 begins more than a year after Katrina, and New Orleans is no longer on the front pages of newspapers or leading the national news. The country’s eye has moved on, but those in the Crescent City are still suffering. Crime is up, help is slow, tourism is way down, and outsiders with money are pouring in to profit from the reconstruction.
So if you thought Simon was going to paint you a rainbow, forget it. As he says: “We are following the actual timeline of post-Katrina New Orleans as a means of understanding what happened — and what didn’t happen — when an American city suffered a near-death experience.”
True to the story line, there are glimpses of a resurgence a little further down the line that viewers know is coming but hasn’t occurred yet. For instance, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) speaks of the Saints and this new quarterback who might work out (Drew Brees, of course, worked out great, marching the Saints to the promised land of the Super Bowl). It’s a little leavening of the pain of watching the people of New Orleans struggle so much before what has been an impressive (but still incomplete) resurgence.
So as Season 2 kicks off, we find Toni (Melissa Leo) still trying to fight the good fight but still hurt by the suicide of her husband, Creighton (John Goodman). Daughter Sofia (India Ennenga, now a full-time cast member) has seemingly absorbed her dead father’s rage and despair over the state of New Orleans, and that puts additional pressure on Toni. (Leo, by the way, remains marvelous in everything she does.)
Antoine (Wendell Pierce) has designs on starting his own band; Albert (Clarke Peters) is dumped out of the bar he revamped when the owner returns; Albert’s son Delmond (Rob Brown) begins to feel the allure of New Orleans again when his fellow New Yorkers disparage the culture; and Janette (Kim Dickens) also tires of the Big Apple as she works under a demanding but talented chef (Anthony Bourdain has been added to the writing staff, so the kitchen banter and attention to detail is exceptional).
Meanwhile, DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) is still pissing off his bosses at the radio station, still railing against the dying of the culture, but at least he’s got a blossoming relationship with Annie Tee (the lovely and talented Lucia Micarelli). Sonny (Michiel Huisman), noted screw-up and Annie’s ex, takes one step forward and two back, as expected. Lt. Colson (David Morse, who also gets upped to full-time cast member) continues to deal with the police department’s handling of crime in the city. And a newcomer from Dallas, Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), adds to the political intrigue and race to reshape New Orleans.
Ambitious? As always. And if the first few episodes are any indication, tighter, even more evocative and as lush and lovingly constructed as possible when conveying the plight of the forgotten.
New Orleans has better days ahead, but Simon and Overmyer look to be spending much of Season 2 on the struggle that was still evident to anyone bothering to look a full year after the floods. If you missed Season 1, get on board now and catch up as you can. Treme might be telling some hard truths, but the soundtrack can help you through the darkest nights. This is a series primed to rise another notch, and you, like the citizens of the Crescent City, should be there for the transformation.
Airdate: 10-11 p.m. April 24 (HBO)
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