Albert Lambreaux Mardi Gras Indian costumeAlbert Lambreaux Mardi Gras Indian costume

Why Treme Is Cause for Celebration

By Robert Silva

If you aren’t headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you can find the mood of the city distilled in every episode of Treme, a show that rewards the viewer over four seasons of revelry, jam sessions, kitchen drama and characters you couldn’t find anywhere else.

David Simon’s first full series after The Wire, Treme is another complex portrait of an American city, but hardly a sequel. It’s a show that’s less about its heavy subject matter (New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) and more about capturing a feeling. It’s something you have to experience.

Take the trip, and you’ll meet bar owner LaDonna (the divine Khandi Alexander), unraveling the mystery of her missing brother; a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) fighting to restore his community in the Lower Ninth Ward –– and others just trying to scrape by. Most amusingly, down-on-his-luck trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, Bunk of The Wire), forever a few dollars short and hunting for the next gig; an authenticity-obsessed DJ (Steve Zahn) rapidly aging out of hipsterdom; and a chef (Deadwood’s Kim Dickens) trying to keep her culinary dreams alive even when there isn’t any gas coming through the burners. Stick around and you’ll find these characters evolving in profound and sometimes shocking ways.

Antoine Batiste in second line band

In keeping with the pulse of the city, Treme is never above taking a detour. Chance encounters with Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams are not uncommon — nor are extended improvisations by local legends like Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band. Some scenes seem to be included just because they’re fun: An impromptu house party, a drunk Mardi Gras fairy trying to turn a parked car into a cab, and Melissa Leo dressed as a sperm. But the bar-hopping rhythm of the show is key to giving a sense of the daily lives of the characters, and what they’re trying to hold on to by staying in New Orleans. “Would you rather have a strong economy or a four-hour lunch?” one character asks, but it’s not always a joke. Some end up leaving.

Treme is an ambitious, multilayered drama; a story of a city told at the pace of everyday life. Even in bad times, New Orleans is a city determined to have a good one. The central question of the show is something we might ask ourselves: How do you go on in the aftermath of disaster?

Trombonist Antoine Batiste might put the answer in musical terms: “Straight ahead. Strive for tone.”

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