David Simon appears to be the Cassandra of our generation, capable only of speaking compelling truths but unable to find an appreciative audience. (A hazy retelling of the myth, but shut up, I’m making a point.) Simon is best known for creating “The Wire,” an HBO series centered on crime in Baltimore, which may go down as the finest television show ever produced.
Nobody watched "The Wire," making its few fervent fans seem utterly insufferable to the uninitiated, but his current series, co-created by Eric Overmyer, doesn’t even seem to have those fans. Or if it does, they’re keeping it to themselves. That’s a pity, because somebody needs to bring “Treme” to the masses. The second season is on Blu-ray now, and the set gorgeously presents the series in all its energetic, lyrical glory.
“Treme” isn’t based on a high concept, which probably has a lot to do with its inability to break into the mainstream. It’s not “Sherlock Holmes in a Hospital” or “Cute Cheerleader Fights Vampires.” It’s a rich ensemble piece depicting the fallout of Hurricane Katrina on the residents of New Orleans. If that makes you shrug your shoulders, then you are, perhaps a little ironically, the target audience. “Treme” illustrates the underseen hardships of a city crippled by great disaster. Lives were lost, homes demolished, and rescue attempts – even after the waters subsided – were slow to reach the suffering residents.
But “Treme” is brimming over with joy, embracing the city’s rich culture, in particular its legendary musical community, as its heroes’ means of coping with tragedy. The typical episode of “Treme” has enough great music to fill an entire soundtrack album, from such artists as Kermit Ruffins, Elvis Costello, Dr. John and many more, all of whom play themselves.
The typical episode of “Treme” is also hard to describe without comparisons to Nashville. The series has literally dozens of regular and recurring cast members, including Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Steve Zahn, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, David Morse and John Goodman, who after the events of the first season makes only a brief cameo in Season 2.
Each character has their own story to follow, sometimes a very subtle one, and their lives are intercut with all of their co-stars, many of whom rarely (if ever) share a scene together. While Simon, Overmyer and their talented show runners keep the stories moving a crisp pace, frequently bolstered by “Why Don’t I Have That CD?” musical interludes, many of the stories presented by “Treme” are subtle, and take several episodes to build to anything resembling a rousing dramatic crescendo.
And since each episode would be impossible to summarize in a TV Guide blurb (“This week, Antoine Batiste and Nelson Hidalgo get caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse” doesn’t apply), picking out a season highlight is an impossible task. “Treme” might even be difficult to watch on a weekly basis. Each season plays like a ten-hour motion picture experience, insisting that audiences get swept up in the infectious atmosphere and intimate moments of the cast.
Season 2 finds Jon Seda joining the regular ensemble as a politically connected power player taking advantage of economic opportunities in a city rife for new development, but finding himself enraptured with the local culture, perhaps unaware that his actions are exploiting the very people he comes to admire.
Season 2 also places a greater emphasis on the criminal element returning to the city (several of the series' regulars are now victims of violence) as well as the police corruption stemming from the clusterf*ck that was the storm, placing Melissa Leo and David Morse in a tricky situation as they attempt to uncover the city’s darker secrets.
And yet Season 2 also focuses on the rebirth of New Orleans, and the dream of musical immortality as Wendell Pierce, Steve Zahn, Lucia Micarelli and Rob Brown’s characters all embark on new musical endeavors, with decidedly mixed results due to their disparate personalities. Perhaps the lancer inside me empathized the most with Zahn’s story arc, which found him finally putting his own band and music label together, only to be swiftly overshadowed by his supposed protégé and his charismatic investor of an aunt. The season ends with Zahn in a curious and emotionally complex position, embracing his ability to recognize greatness as well as his failings to actually contribute anything beautiful to the world on his own.
“Treme” sounds heavier in discussion than it plays on the screen. It’s a spectacularly absorbing tale of human perseverance, rife with comedy, emotion and song. As is typical for HBO, the Blu-ray set is beautifully presented with painterly color and fine detail, and the special features – including several commentary tracks and a fine feature identifying the show’s many, many musical performances (a necessity, since you’ll want them in your collection) – are carefully selected and smartly presented.
If you haven’t seen “Treme” you simply must begin with Season One, and trust me, you’ll be glad you did. But if you’re like me, and have to wait to watch your favorite HBO series until they come out on home video, you’ll find that the second season of “Treme” brings the same warmth and satisfaction as the last one did. It’s the new best show nobody’s watching.