Treme – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 You Have Friends That Want You Back Home Thu, 07 Jul 2011 14:19:22 +0000 Sunday’s airing of Treme‘s season hour-and-a-half season finale did its best to tie up a season’s worth of loose ends. LaDonna got a couple strong kicks in on her rapist and her husband finally realized what her family’s bar and New Orleans means to her; Davis finally came to the conclusion that he is a music lover but not much of a musician; Sofia and Toni found a new sense of happiness in their daughter/mother relationship; Antoine lost one band and helped form another, more meaningful one; Colson openly admitted that the entire homicide department needs to cleaned out by the Feds; Nelson realized that his ambitions have limits and that he has been played by Liguori as a minority pawn in a long-term struggle for real estate; Janette is offered a chance to come home with investors ready to back a new restaurant; Delmond’s success working with his father on the Mardis Gras Indian/Jazz project has made him feel closer to both the father and hometown he has spent most of his life escaping; and even Sonny, Treme‘s resident in-recovery junkie, might have a brighter, clearer path and a new love.

Which may be more than one can say for New Orleans. As Treme’s second season offers its characters some sense of closure over the traumas of Katrina, the montage of New Orleans abandoned buildings, neighborhoods and crime at the end of Sunday’s program remind the viewer that New Orleans still doesn’t have the services and infrastructure necessary for its citizens’ safety and well being. As Davis spins Louis Armstrong’s “Wrap Your Troubles Up in Dreams” while he, once again, DJs for WWOZ, the shots of vacant lots, abandoned buildings and street crime remind the viewer that whatever resolution these characters find, the city is replete with less-than-happy endings. If anything, Davis’ silence and sucker-punch reaction to the end of Armstrong’s ballad reminds him and the viewer that the road for New Orleans’ recovery will be long and littered with the difficulties and struggles of a population that simply feels out of place anywhere else in America. Davis laments that “even if they make it hard where else would we go? Who else would have us?” sums up the conundrum that America’s greatest cultural treasure poses its residents two years after the water swallowed the city and the Federal government somehow forgot how to care.

David Simon makes his cities pose questions. They are his program’s main characters and their larger political economic problems of labor, services and wealth are never placed in the background. Simon often referred to The Wire’s portrayal of Baltimore as a kind of televised sociology. Treme, on the other hand, yens for musicological lenses and kitchen studies. If The Wire focused on a city’s lack of infrastructural resources and the impacts this had on its citizens, Treme has emphasized on the many skills, labors and laborers it takes to make New Orleans sing. Treme’s focus on how its culture and cultural economies are created and presented through music and cuisine has meant a majority of its almost 22 narrative hours watching musicians struggle with bar owners, the recording business, the law and each other. And for every rehearsal scene and onstage argument, we are provided a back-of-the-house moment portraying of both the pleasures and horrors of the professional kitchen.

The connections between the pleasures of the table and those of the ear are many. Temporal arts of the senses, food and music are intertwined because of their mutual  investment in experiential economies that do not travel well. That Delmond and Janette strike up a friendship as NOLA exiles in NYC in the second season is only logical. The two are both skilled artists that spend the season weaving their way back and forth from New Orleans as they tend to the needs of friends and family. Yet it’s more than that as both Janette and Delmond are trying to process what New Orleans means to them as people and, more importantly, their arts and artistry. Delmond’s recording projects and Janette’s dishes are grounded in New Orleans traditions, but without being grounded in New Orleans the two come to understand that while they succeed in New York they exist in the city at a significant loss. Their call back to New Orleans is not so much laced with the temptations of “opportunity”, but the need rebuild their home. As Janette, is told by her potential investor, “You have friends that want you back home”. These first two seasons of Treme have depicted this process of a unique labor force returning to a city that throughout history has thumbed its nose at change but has been forced to by the forces of nature. Yet as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux reminds earlier in season two when he explains to the filmmaker who wants to film the process him sewing his Mardis Gras Indian suit, “The Process don’t matter if you don’t have no result. Process, shit. The process… is just a lot of damn hard work.”

If there is hope to be found in Treme that all of this work will have a fruitful result it is in Antoine’s teaching and mentoring of young musicians in both the schools and on the streets. In particular, Antoine has taken one teen trumpeter named Robert under his tutelage. Robert appears in the very first scene of the second season playing the first five notes of “When The Saints Go Marching In” over and over as a sort of musical seed that, with proper nurturing and attention, may mature into a whole song, a whole set. Under Antoine’s guidance, Robert’s hard work is rewarded as he and his bandmates present their first public performance on a street in the French Quarter during Jazz Fest. Chaperoned by Antoine, the performance is the culmination of hope, hope which is the result of developed embouchures, many sour notes and broken rhythms. This is the hard, important preparatory work needed to make both the legendary local music and cuisine of the Crescent City. Neither of these are a given, but the sweet fruit of cultural work that elevates this labor at the expense of other items and services. Indeed, In one of the more important academic studies on popular music in the 20th century, Sociologist Ruth Finnegan notes that when she started to write about local music in Milton Keynes, “At first, I just took this local music for granted and, beyond a vague expectation that the necessary arrangements would just be there for me and mine, did not think much about it” (Finnegan, p. xvii). The two seasons of Treme remind us that although these arts may be New Orleans’ birthright and the foundation of their tourist economy, they are dependent on human traditions, people and cultures, all of which can be washed away and in need of homes.

Works Cited

Finnegan, R. (2007). The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town (Reprint ed.). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.


Treme: It Matters a Difference Wed, 29 Jun 2011 15:46:46 +0000 When I lived in New Orleans, one of my students, a native New Orleanian, explained that, “New Orleans is a hard place to live. It’s an even harder place to leave.” It is surely the case that the theme of leavings (both in the sense of departures and in relation to the parts that remain, like the way a melody lingers in your head after the trumpet stops playing) provides the narrative arc of the penultimate episode, “That’s What Lovers Do.”

Several variations on leavings occur in the episode: Toni and Sofia feel the consequences of Creighton’s suicide; Toni searches, as she did last season, for lost evidence in relation to the murder of an African American man; Colson tries to aid Toni in her search while he discovers evidence of a potential police cover-up; LaDonna struggles with a sense of ruptured belonging to New Orleans after being raped; Annie responds, with others, to Harley’s murder; Janette finds her way in New York City by cooking her versions of shrimp-n-grits and fried chicken-n-waffles.

This episode “reconstitutionalates” what New Orleans means not only locally, but also for those who find themselves elsewhere (displaced New Orleanian ex-pats such as myself, writing and watching Treme from New York City). One of the features of this episode that sets it off from previous ones is a privileging of the core female characters’ experiences of leavings and of responses to remaining. The two female characters that have captivated my attention this season, and in this episode, are LaDonna and Janette. For different reasons, these two characters embody the complexity that accompanies ways of living in aftermath and of deciding whether or not to remain in a place that you call home. In the words of Dr. John, New Orleans, “it matters a difference” to be there or to carry it with you when you go.

The closing shot of “That’s What Lovers Do,” is of LaDonna’s face after she and her husband have attempted to have sex. As they have an awkward conversation, LaDonna turns over on her side and looks toward the camera as she offers the following reassurance, “We’re just out of practice, that’s all.” The camera cuts to black and the closing song, “That’s What Lovers Do” begins to play as the credits roll. The song’s lyrics point out that while lovers may drift apart, they should “pretend it’s not the end” because, “that’s what lovers do when they’re still in love.” As the series has so poignantly and powerfully shown, this refrain could describe the ups and downs of various relationships (friends, lovers, family) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In LaDonna’s case, this episode elaborates her sense of being at home with and violently repelled by New Orleans. As she tells her therapist, “I don’t know where I am these days.” Her therapist responds by suggesting that Gigi’s Bar “represents independence, your sense of place, and a link to your past.” Ladonna responds, “It’s all I got…besides my family.” To sell the symbol of her independence, her sense of place – even if that place is the scene of an assault perpetrated upon her – is also to lose or to leave herself. A later scene with LaDonna’s family at the table in their Baton Rouge house sounds out her frustration. The sharp sound of cutlery scraping and hitting plates is punctuated by her son’s request for his grandmother to pass the salt. LaDonna insists the family refrain from using extra salt and then she leaves the table.

For Janette, newly nicknamed, “Gator,” by David Chang at the fictional “Lucky Peach” in New York City, leaving New Orleans represents opportunities as well as limitations. As her musical parallel male character, Delmond, also finds in relation to the promise of the Big Apple, the meanings of the Big Easy and “outsider” perceptions of the city can be a source of inspiration as well as frustration for displaced or ex-pat New Orleanians. The movement between New Orleans and New York City was brought home for me during last week’s episode when my subway stop, the 2/3 Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum station, was seen in an establishing shot before Albert and Delmond visit the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of African masks. Albert and Delmond return to New Orleans to make the recording. At the end of the recording, Delmond asks “Didn’t that sound the same as when we cut it in New York?” Dr. John replies in delicious bons mots, that “New Orleans infect music. It reconstitutionalates it. I’m not trying to be no jive…sucker, but I tell you what, it matters a difference. Can you dig it?” Delmond can dig it and so can I.

That said, Janette also encounters the ways that New Orleans shapes daily life through what might be called ex-pat identifications. (I’m thankful to Vicki Mayer for mentioning ex-pat viewers who watch Treme). Janette represents the affective pull of (mobile) homes as she performs New Orleans in New York City. For us, as viewers of Treme it’s a bittersweet broth, but as any cook worth their salt knows, this combination of affective ingredients is also the basis for many other things.


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Feet First Wed, 22 Jun 2011 19:29:21 +0000 People who love New Orleans will tell you there is no place else like it. Even before Katrina, locals would often say it’s not really an American city; that culturally, it’s more Caribbean; that it’s a “third world” city. One of the things that this kind of exceptionalist rhetoric doesn’t allow for is that New Orleans has a lot in common with other American cities, like Baltimore. My friend Melva said this episode reminded her of The Wire–when I got to watch it later I could see why. Residents of large cities all over the US are afraid to testify, threatened by crooked cops, traumatized by violent crime, fleeced by profit-taking speculators, plagued by corrupt governments, sold short by failing school boards. In New Orleans after Katrina, disaster capitalism just speeds up the process and turns over more rocks, more quickly to reveal the vermin below.

“That’s New Orleans, too,” says Antoine as the cop cars speed past him, likely on their way to the scene of Harley’s murder. He means that the city is more than the drunk St. Patrick’s Day revelers walking past; he and Sonny are both answering the question posed in this episode’s title, “What is New Orleans?” Yet Antoine also echoes many of the show’s critics, who complain that the city is more than just the partying, food, music, and tourist sights that appear so often in its episodes. This episode, signaling the season’s stronger emphasis on crime and corruption, might appeal more to those demanding greater verisimilitude and less televisual tourism, to use Lynnell Thomas’s apt expression.

For many in New Orleans there comes a point when we have to answer a difficult question: is living here worth your life or that of your family? Where do you draw the line? What are you willing to risk, to possibly sacrifice, in order to live in such a magical place? Seeing what is still happening to Ladonna and probably more than one person we know in real life, we ask this question. I answered it back in the early 90s, when most people I knew had had a gun stuck in their face or worse. I was lucky in that I was willing and able to leave and make my life in other places once I chose to leave. But many people stay, believing that there is nowhere else they can live–because of their family ties, work, community, and/or a sense of cultural belonging. Like the Midcity homeowner who says, “When I leave this house, it’s going to be feet first.” In the reverse shot, we see not Hidalgo, who is talking to the gentleman, but his cousin the roofer, transfixed by the conversation. The slow zoom into his closeup emphasizes the emotional power of the man’s ferocious love of his home. A commitment, a conscious choice that this will be where I die, also characterizes Harley, who does indeed die in this episode in the gritty realism we have come to expect from George Pelecanos. If the show had seemed too touristic, this brutal episode offers a possible counter-balance to that.

On the other hand, for those seeking more verisimilitude, I give you the Davis character. So many criticisms of the show focus on what an ass the character of Davis McAlary is. Yet I have to say, Davis is an integral part of the “realism” of the show as well. To paraphrase from a comment thread on an earlier post, I think Davis’s character personifies the enduring and ever-adapting tradition of white supremacy in New Orleans, in this case the music scene. Davis sees his new label, funded by his eccentric Garden District aunt, as a vehicle for his overtly political music that he hopes will speak to the New Orleans public–perhaps the way Creighton Bernette’s YouTube rants gained a local following. A fool’s errand, as Sound of Treme blog points out. New Orleans music has always been “political” but not usually in overt ways; more often it takes the form of “feel good music” to express resistance indirectly.

In some ways, both Davis and Creighton bear the burden of representing the white male New Orleanian in all his flawed and self-obsessed glory. We were supposed to be horrified by the scene a couple weeks back when Davis urges his new front man Lil Calliope to listen to Woody Guthrie and The Clash. (Why didn’t the show’s writers have him suggest some black activist music like Marvin Gaye or Nina Simone? Because it’s Davis. He’s a self-involved white boy.) This week, he visually and verbally dominates Lil Calliope during their WWOZ guest appearance. In that scene, the tradition of white appropriation and exploitation of black talent lives on. But when Lil Calliope’s new song, “The Truth,” a non-political dance cut that Davis has no claim to, becomes a local hit, Davis responds with disbelief, disappointment, petulance, and then a smidgen of (stoned) generosity, saying to Annie, “I’m happy for him.” His ability to recognize how childish he sounds and to laugh at himself shows that even this character, who is the target of some stupendously venomous comments on the Times-Picayune’s Treme blog, is developing in baby steps this season. Davis’s character is another necessary element for some kind of narrative truth, “The Truth” that he doesn’t want to hear, a representation of the (sometimes ugly) reality of the city in fictionalized form. Moreover, what is truly impressive in this storyline this week: Davis’s attempts to use Calliope’s talent to put over his own new venture may or may not work, but Calliope has circumvented Davis entirely and made his own name. The glee of watching the opening scene at ‘OZ when he hands the DJ his other CD over Davis’s head is priceless!

The “truth” of  Treme’s New Orleans is at its best a heady cocktail of tourist delights, urban decay, trauma and corruption, and glimmers of progress as the city struggles to adjust to the new normal.


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Music is a Character Wed, 15 Jun 2011 17:10:41 +0000

Photo by Guy Robinson

One of the highlights of Sunday’s episode “Can I Change My Mind,” was the appearance of Donald Harrison Jr with Delmond, first at the bar at Domenica, and later at Dr. John’s studio. The musicians are dreaming up a collaboration that would mix traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants with modern jazz. They will try to persuade Delmond’s father Chief Lambreaux, to do the chanting when they record. I say “dreaming up” because there is an element of the surreal about this musical rapport. Donald Harrison has done just that for quite a while. Indeed, he has been called a one-man jazz festival because he slides so effortlessly into different musical styles – from modern jazz to traditional.

To hear an mp3 of his contemporary arrangement of a traditional New Orleans Indian chant go to and click on the song Shallow Water. At the end Harrison dedicates the recording to his dad, Donald Harrison Sr., Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. For a real thrill watch the YouTube video of The Big Chief Donald Harrison Quintet at Jazzascona, where they transition from modern jazz riffs to Indian chants while strutting in feathered suits no doubt weighing over 100 pounds.

Photo by Robin Andersen

I met Harrison last March when he played for a small but enthusiastic group of locals at the Prime Example, a jazz club on N. Broad Street in New Orleans. The cover charge for the weekly Thursday night jazz session is ten dollars, and that includes a plate of local food. On the “Carnival Time” episode, Antoine Batiste and the Soul Apostles gig at the club the Sunday before Mardi Gras. I talked to a club regular Kim, who signed up to be an extra, and a glancing shot of her behind the bar can be seen on the episode.

That night Donald told me that music was a character on Treme. That made some sense to me, having argued in the past that product plugging turned commodities into characters on sitcoms. But that was a criticism. How did it work for the culture of jazz on TV exactly? Watching Sunday’s episode, what had seemed an ephemeral concept now made sense. The music is evolving, developing. We see it transform, shaped into something different, responding to context.

Harrison has been a consultant for Treme from the start, meeting with David Simon when he was still working on The Wire. In fact, the characters of Delmond and Albert Lambreaux are based on the Harrisons. But when Delmond is shown struggling with his competing allegiances to New York and NOLA, that is where Donald parts company with his fictional counterpart. Donald has moved back and forth between the New Orleans and New York music scenes for years. In the city to record another album, I saw him again at the premier of season 2 of Treme at MOMA. We talked about the appearance of the Hot 8 Brass Band in the new season, performing their post-storm anthem, New Orleans, and how the band had sustained the loss of trombonist Joe Williams, shot by police in 2004, and then the shooting death of snare drummer Dinerral Shavers in 2006, whose funeral would be depicted in episode 5 “Slip Away.”

Photo by Robin Andersen

In addition to jazz consultant, as the Big Chief of Congo Nation, Harrison has also coached Clarke Peters on chanting and moving in his heavy suit as Chief Lambreaux. In the last episode of season 1, Lambreaux emerges in full regalia on Super Sunday 2006, and encounters Big Chief Donald Harrison on the street. The scene references one of the most important events in New Orleans in 2006, when Donald Harrison strolled out of St Augustine’s into the Treme in his stunning Congo Nation suit, and offered hope to all assembled that the culture of New Orleans would survive. Indians are now known in New Orleans as spiritual first responders.

Not surprisingly, as a Big Chief, Donald Harrison speaks in a language that can only be described as spiritual. With his hand on his chest, he said music comes from the heart – it is sent out from there, from New Orleans and has spread and influenced the music of America.

Though Harrison has been on-screen since the fist episode when he played in the New York City nightclub with Delmond, it was great to see yet another New Orleans local taking a bit more of a national spotlight in Sunday’s episode, playing alongside characters who are at least partially, reflections of himself.


Throw the Baby Out the Window Wed, 08 Jun 2011 13:00:14 +0000 Like the Mardi Gras episode last season, and many episodes of Treme, cross-cutting among the ensemble cast restricts the depth of development for any single story thread, and means that every minute counts. Sometimes an episode’s widely divergent storylines don’t sit well with all viewers–particularly clear in the mixed reception of the way Ladonna’s assault was intercut with more superficial events in the threads of Delmond and Antoine in “On Your Way Down.” Although I disagree with Salon‘s Matt Zoller Seitz about that episode, and wholeheartedly applaud raynola‘s rebuttal at Back of Town, I understand why many feel that the editing and discordant tones of the various threads didn’t suit that episode’s trauma. Critics and commenters have been debating this aesthetic choice for a while, but I think it works here.

This episode skitters among the cast, giving us just enough, showing what Mardi Gras 2007 means for each character. The rapid-fire montage sketches each character just enough so that we see what she or he is up to, piquing our interest, and then moves on to the next. Enough backstory exists so that each snippet plugs into our previous knowledge of, and emotional connection to, the characters. We can be happy to see Del marching with his father, whose blue-tarp-topped Gentilly house is still gutted down to the studs but takes pride of place on Del’s patch for his suit. Many viewers are even sympathizing with Nelson, Davis, and Sonny, all mighty unpopular so far. Annie’s Cajun Mardi Gras, the weakest thread this week, felt too long with little development payoff and almost ethnographic, pandering to the desire for the exotic (and Cajun Mardi Gras is exotic, even for most New Orleanians). I find myself, as I often did last season, wondering what is going on with Jacques, the sweet sous-chef. The ultra-brief glimpses of Ladonna, ensconced in her comfy beige Baton Rouge sofa with her bucket-sized whiskey glass was all it took: I couldn’t get her out of my mind through the rest of the episode. She replaces Creighton as the embodiment of the city’s struggles this season.

Toni’s thread stands out in particular as reaching for the heights of Sirkian maternal melodrama and I mean that in a good way. She continues to allow the shards of her relationship with her daughter to lacerate her. Toni’s suffering stems from her grief over Creighton and from her guilt-ridden, masochistic embrace of Sofia’s (understandable) hostility. Sofia’s fragility and her resilience are vying for control over her story–at this point it’s neck and neck. Melissa Leo’s and Khandi Alexander’s faces express pain that won’t be healed soon or easily, or possibly ever. The damage in the Bernette and Williams families is under the surface, but it is festering. Even the fact that both women are middle-class and probably can pay for psychiatric care doesn’t mean they will have access to it in the health care wasteland of post-Katrina New Orleans.
But this carnival episode, like last year’s, also reminds me of the potential of every Mardi Gras to provide a transcendent collective experience. The heavily cross-cut montage creates a unity across the different stories to create a collective sense. While it’s true that everyone’s Mardi Gras experience is colored by his or her own emotional state at the time, as my dear friend Jolie says, there is also a group vibe. I risk repeating a cliche here because it is true: the value of carnival in my experience is the feeling that the whole city is transported together in a whimsical state of joie de vivre, the group high that engulfs the rich and poor, black and white, Uptown, Downtown, and back of town, the “family” fun and the more “adult” possibilities. The touristic elements of the show, as previous posts have pointed out, sometimes involve too many name-checks, too much striving to “get it right”–which, don’t get me wrong, is a welcome change from the travesties of the past. But this episode shows the heart of Mardi Gras without being corny, as virgotex argues in the Back of Town blog. For all their immaturity, Davis and Antoine each do the right thing. The sense of community that can come from carnival won’t erase the trouble in your heart, as the magical Cajun might say. But it can bring out the fellow-feeling in people and foster fleeting utopian moments. There is a sense of disaster averted–fears of violence prove unwarranted, as we see Colson’s character work “to protect and serve” at Muses and finally his coiled-spring tension easing at midnight on Mardi Gras. The cooperative spirit–that even the police (at their best) convey–is what I love about the line in the song “Carnival Time” that invites the listener to join in: “if you put a nickel well now, I put a dime / We can get together and drink us some wine.”


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Tremé: Feels Like Joy and Pain Wed, 01 Jun 2011 14:32:01 +0000 On July 5, 2009, I swayed shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of other black folk in the New Orleans Superdome performing regional variations of the Electric Slide as we sang along with Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. We didn’t know at the time that this would be the end of a fifteen year run for the R&B soul band as the closing act of the Essence Music Festival and its three days of African American music, exhibitions, and seminars. For many black New Orleanians (local and ex-pat alike), Maze was Essence Festival, and we returned like pilgrims each year for the beloved concert ritual led by Maze singing the same songs and even wearing the same outfit to culminate the festivities. Of course, the Essence Festival, which doesn’t even bother to include local musicians in its concerts, is not likely to be featured on Tremé; neither is Maze, which while claiming a certain affinity for New Orleans, originated in Philadelphia and boasts no native sons. Still, Maze’s music resonates with New Orleanians from a broad demographic. We connect with songs whose titles – “Golden Time of Day,” “Southern Girl,” “Before I Let Go,” “We Are One,” “Back in Stride,” “What Goes Up,” “Joy and Pain” – flatter, instruct, console, and uplift us, hinting at the philosophical, moral, and even spiritual lessons that the music imparts. Maze’s music reminds us that for all the talk of New Orleans’ exceptionalism, New Orleanians also share many of the same ideals, desires, worries – and problems – as the visiting festival-goers whom we dance alongside.

Herein lies the challenge facing Tremé (and every other media representation of New Orleans): finding a way to balance a celebration of the city’s unique cultural contributions with an acknowledgment of its more conventional, and often more damning, histories, memories, and contemporary realities. In the past weeks, this blog has attempted to meet this challenge with some columns referencing the city’s unique sense of place and coolness factor and others critiquing persistent socioeconomic inequalities and racial divisions. Week 6’s episode “Feels Like Rain” also responds to the challenge, self-consciously, if not always adroitly. Season two’s shift from showcasing New Orleans cultural innovations to documenting the painful process of recovery for the city’s cultural producers is epitomized by Antoine’s (Wendell Pierce) hiring of a straw boss to manage the “regular shit” keeping the band from producing good music.

Ultimately, it is the regular shit that Tremé’s characters – and New Orleans’ community – must contend with in the aftermath of Katrina. Whether it’s Desirée (Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc) pleading for her cousin to be enrolled in a decent, safe school; LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) avoiding a return to her bar where she was brutally attacked; Albert (Clarke Peters) vowing to relocate after mounting frustrations with the insurance company and the Road Home; or Toni’s (Melissa Leo) and Terry’s (David Morse) crusading against the criminal justice system, Tremé forces us to abandon momentarily the exceptional city – exotic, carnivalesque, romantic – in order to better understand the mundane, everyday issues that New Orleanians struggle with. These ongoing struggles attest to the fact that Tremé cannot be only a love letter to New Orleans, but must also, at times, be a “Dear John” letter. Such a letter has been contemplated, if not composed, by countless New Orleans residents (including Louis Armstrong, whom Antoine pays tribute to in this episode) hoping to escape economic, sexual, social, and racial exploitation or exclusion.

Episode 6 is sometimes heavyhanded in its efforts to describe the city’s complexity and the ambivalent relationship some residents have toward it. Nelson, (Jon Seda) the Texas opportunist, compares the city to “a village on an island” where unscrupulous business elites, ethically-challenged politicians, and struggling neighborhood cultural groups are “all connected somehow.” Annie (Lucia Micarelli) reflects on John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain” as an allegory for the city: “a little dark sometimes and a little dangerous…like New Orleans.” What they attempt to convey in words, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, has been crooning to New Orleans audiences for over a decade. Their 1996 hit “Joy and Pain” tells an honest story about relationships by striking a balance between the debilitating and regenerative possibilities of love. Hopefully, Tremé will also continue to strive for such a balance.

Remember when you first found love how you felt so good
Kind that lasts forevermore, so you thought it would
Suddenly the things you see got you hurt so bad
How come the things that make us happy make us sad
Well it seems to me that

Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain
Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain


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Keepin’ it Real on Treme Wed, 25 May 2011 12:30:02 +0000 I’m a newcomer to New Orleans, but it’s my place, and I have a proprietary interest in what Treme means to my city.  Its economic impact, analyzed by Vicki Mayer in an earlier column, is complicated: the tax breaks handed out to HBO may not be worth it if the money that the production spends here doesn’t get where it’s needed most and if the tourism that’s supposed to be generated by the show doesn’t make up for lost revenue.

On the face of it, Producer/creators Eric Overmayer and David Simon can’t do enough for the city. Treme is a love letter to New Orleans, famously praised by local bloggers and national NOLA-loving critics alike for “getting it right.” At the same time, these critic/fans are markedly uncritical of the trickle-down argument that increased tourism from Treme will make up for lost taxes. One can’t help but wonder how they would respond to the same case if it were made by, say, a manufacturer.  But it’s hard to focus on mundane questions when Treme says the one thing about New Orleans that was always my answer when my midwestern neighbors asked “Why do you want to move there? Why?  Because it’s the coolest city in the United States.

Simon and Overmayer clearly agree, and most episodes of Treme could be subtitled “The Hipster’s Guide to New Orleans.” From the beginning, every episode has been crammed full of references to bars, nightclubs, and restaurants—these are the good places, where we go to eat, hang out, and listen to music. The Spotted Cat and d.b.a. on Frenchmen, The Bon Temps Roule on Magazine, and Vaughn’s and Bullet’s farther out—these are the kind of places people don’t hit on their first or even second trip to the city, and before their shout-outs on Treme, you could still get a seat there.

The hip traveler’s to do list of restaurants, clubs, and musicians not to miss on their next trip was notably absent in this episode.  Instead, “Slip Away” opened with the funeral of Dinneral Shavers, high school band teacher and drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band. In a show known for intertextuality, where characters are based on real people and real people play themselves, “Slip Away” went a step (or several) further, re-enacting the actual funeral of Dinneral Shavers that took place in 2006, right down to the eulogy given by his real sister Nikita. There wasn’t much fun in this funeral as we see close ups of her anguish and that of the New Orleans musicians who were friends of Shavers and attended the original event.  No acting classes needed for these guys—the grief seemed fresh and raw.

With Dinneral’s funeral, Simon and Overmayer return to what is familiar territory for them and address the upsurge in violent crime that shook New Orleans in 2006.  LaDonna’s rape in the previous episode is a fictional introduction to two real murders: Shavers’ and the shooting of Helen Hill, a filmmaker killed in her home in the Marigny. The script becomes more documentary than drama as the ensuing (scripted) city-wide march against violence is juxtaposed with actual news footage taken at the time.  Film of actors and extras re-enacting the march is intercut with shots of a bewildered-looking then-Mayor Ray Nagin trying to respond to protesters and with live footage (ca. 2006) of Glenn David Andrews (who appears in the 2011 re-enactment of the funeral) speaking at the rally. The episode ends with LaDonna, safe (but not feeling that way) in Baton Rouge, watching the coverage as a lone customer as Gigi’s back in New Orleans does the same.

The producers/writers on Treme are under tremendous pressure: they ache to do right by New Orleans, they have to make a television show that people will continue watching, and they want to tell the truth about the city putting itself back together after the storm.  For my part, I’m starting to agree with those who argue that the show’s worshipful focus on New Orleans culture has occupied too much screen time at the expense of other things that make people watch.  But in an attempt to “get real,” the endless name-checking of musicians has been replaced in part by court cases about exorbitant police fees for Second Lines (with attorneys and judges playing themselves) and problems with the Sewerage and Water Board.  Once the writers run out of items for the show’s “Cool New Orleans” travelogue, their quest for verisimilitude will have Treme painted into a corner.  Real life is boring and tedious, except when it isn’t, and then it’s too painful for words.  I can’t predict what viewers will say about re-enacting a real funeral even with the permission of the family, but I’m glad I don’t have to take the heat for it.

Treme just hired a new writer, the first woman on their team, and already there are hints that things will be happening in the lives of Albert, Janette and Delmond. Some of my friends and I are rooting for Toni to hook up with a sexy younger musician. (Anybody out there listening?) Overmayer and Simon have more than established their street credibility as far as this New Orleanian  is concerned.  They’ve been keepin’ it real.  Now’s the time to start makin’ it up.


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F.ix E.verything M.y Wed, 18 May 2011 15:20:02 +0000 While my larger reflections center this past Sunday’s episode, I haven’t been able to quite shake the narrative of the last. Specifically, LaDonna’s (Khandi Alexander) brutal attack and rape has kept me online pondering taser purchase and thinking about all the ways to protect my children. I’ve been torn by the representation of a Black woman being savagely attacked against the reality of Black women’s victimization receiving scant attention. Something about the senselessness and pedestrianness of it, sandwiched between the angst of an out-of-work musician and another one hustling to get work, left me with a feeling of dread and uneasiness. Living in uptown New Orleans, the frequent violence reporting exists as just that—reports about a place that does not reflect my daily reality. Notwithstanding the occasional requisite “black man on the loose” posters plastered around campus, a comfortable day-to-day occupied my psyche until this disturbing episode.

The creators of Treme sat on a panel at Tulane University in November of last year where they talked about the series, its outlook, its goals, and its differences from The Wire. The focus for Treme was the culture-cality of the city and where the creators aimed their arrow for most of season one. But in this season two, amongst the sadness and pathos, they begin to address the deeply embedded divisions, corruption, and largely racialized visioning of a city wedded to a plantation economy that shapes its educational institutions, housing patterns, job allocation, and routine interactions.

In the rhythm of recent episodes, (and really mainstream jazz), the crosscutting between scenes of Sunday’s episode requires not only an intimacy with the characters but also a colossal feigned empathy with and identification of the similarities between their situations. While New Orleanians seem to love the series and are elated that it has been renewed for a third season, at least the ones that post to the Times Picayune site, talking to several Black New Orleanians strikes a slightly different note. One ex-pat felt that the story engages the city like a tourist would—centering all of the things that tourist boards foreground in their presentations of cities—food, music, local color, and if possible, exoticism. New Orleans indeed has all of those things and Treme shows them. But the pedestrian, everyday, go-to-work daily New Orleans, the feel of extended family in a place where so many have never known, will never know, any other way of life has been largely absent.

The twin emotions of comfort and resignation feel like they are just beginning to emerge in this series. While a story like Davis’s, for example, is annoying at best, distracting and offensive at worst, Albert Lambreaux Sr. and his frustration/anger with homeowners insurance, Batiste’s reintroduction to the school system and its problems (alongside the lingering dread of Katrina dwelling inside Black children), and the brutality that comes with sustained poverty through LaDonna’s rape, the killing of Benny’s son, and repeated discussions of police brutality get at another New Orleans. It is this New Orleans, the largely Black and poor New Orleans, that is only starting to gain traction in Treme.

This New Orleans is not on the tourist path; it’s beyond Bourbon and besides Mardi Gras. It is this New Orleans that privileges familial traditions and histories. It is one where talks about Indians move beyond costumes and masking. It could be the 7th Ward New Orleans and the histories of racial mixing, ambiguity, and Creolization as a way of life and division live. This New Orleans must contend with the outcomes of corruption, cronyism, greed, and nepotism.

Living here in New Orleans, one of the most striking conundrums about this series is that while its heartbeat lies with the culture of Black inhabitants, it seems their larger lives cannot be the focus –perhaps due to its audience of largely white and affluent viewers. Regular, non- artistic Black New Orleanians do appear as extras and even capture central roles, as in the case of the awesome, Phyllis Montana-LaBlanc as Desiree. However, a large majority of Black New Orleanians cannot even afford to pay for the network in which this series about their city, their culture, and their lives appear. Like F.E.M.A., Treme has a certain impotence built into its existence. It’s a TV program. But as the series continues, I look forward to viewing the reconciliation or at least further examination of its polls and can only hope that its presentation provides more effect and impact than the Feds (and local government) did at that moment.


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The Rhythm of a City Out of Sync: The Disrupted Spaces of Treme Wed, 11 May 2011 13:00:33 +0000 As Antoine Batiste rehearses with his nascent ensemble in “On Your Way Down,” the third episode in Treme’s second season, he continually stops them: someone is either off key (“Oh, you meant a concert B Flat?”), off rhythm, or simply out of sync with what Antoine has in mind.

In his review of “On Your Way Down,” Salon Television Critic Matt Zoller Seitz says much the same of this episode, remarking that it was “unimaginative in most ways, and tone-deaf in others.” He cites the circumstances surrounding the vicious rape of Ladonna Williams as his chief concern, and argues “her suffering was treated glancingly” as a result of the large number of characters followed throughout the episode. He emphasizes how “A beloved character was raped and beaten to a pulp. The emphasis should have been on her.”

While I will admit that I felt this episode was the strongest of the season, and that I would respectfully disagree with a number of Seitz’s criticisms, I do want to explore the nature of this response, as I think it speaks to one of the central themes of both this episode and the season as a whole.

As Kristina demonstrated so well last week, the larger sense of place associated with New Orleans and its role or those who remain the city and the ex-pats in New York City is integral to our understanding of the show’s narrative and the show’s characters. However, as notable as this sense of place is, often our focus is on smaller spaces within that place – we are constantly moving back and forth, traveling from character to character and from space to space within the larger “place” of New Orleans.

For me, this season has begun to draw a clear distinction between place and space, emphasizing that one’s knowledge of the former does not necessarily apply to the latter. In the moments leading up to Ladonna’s terrifying ordeal, we see her weighing the situation, and there is that brief moment where she sees familiar faces across the street. That is the New Orleans she knows: friendly neighbors and a sense of community; however, her harrowing experience reveals that the space has been infiltrated by the rise in criminal activity, the same kind of activity that we continue to hear stories about from during the storm itself (as we get this week with Toni’s interview with the officer who discovered her client’s son’s body).

While season one seemed to chart the resiliency – and the limitations, in the case of Creighton and others – of New Orleans as a place, defined by its people and its culture, season two is digging into localized spaces and demonstrating their continued vulnerability in the wake of the storm. Jeanette’s home is taken over by a squatter, while Sonny’s home is invaded by police and left open for looters to finish the job. While one could argue that Sonny was culpable in his case, given that he allowed the drug trade to unfold under his roof, the invasion of the drug trade demonstrates his lack of control over the rise in post-storm criminality from entering into that space.

To go back to Seitz’s point regarding the constant shifts between different storylines even as Ladonna suffers in the hospital, I would argue that this is part of the season’s overall narrative structure. The editing means that we are constantly shifting from space to space, never settling into one long enough to get a clear picture. Just as Antoine can’t find the right rhythm, the show can’t seem to find its bearings: it’s like someone is constantly tuning the radio receiver looking for a different channel, a maddening experience on the one hand but an enlightening experience on the other.

It is also, within New Orleans, a necessary one. The police find themselves trying to be in fifty places at once just like the show itself, while Jeanette struggles with trying to be in both New York and New Orleans at the same time. By never allowing us to feel comfortable in a single space, and by forcing us to move our perspective away from Ladonna despite our concern, the show invites us to consider the absences, disruptions and invasions facing these characters as they go about their daily lives in the city they once knew.

The “where” of Treme is becoming less cultural with each passing week, a sign that the struggles of Katrina continue to erode the spirit of the city. While the constant shift between different spaces in “On Your Way Down” may have seemed to reduce the meaning of Ladonna’s experience, I would argue this shift captured the constant struggle New Orleans residents face as they try to find their bearings in their ever-changing city, a struggle which seems no better than it was this time last season.


Minstrel Show in a Three-Day Stubble of a City Wed, 04 May 2011 12:44:42 +0000 The first season of Treme focused primarily on New Orleans citizens, developing tensions between those who stayed and those who came back and those who decided to stay away. In contrast, the second season shapes up to reconnect the city with the world around it: real estate developers move in to exploit the disaster and New Orleaneans move out; outsiders experience the city and natives get confronted with outsider views of New Orleans. There are two moments in the first two episodes that strike this cord particularly: Delmond Lambreaux’s argument about New Orleans music with fellow jazz lovers and Janette Desautel’s conversation with her fellow cooks after reading Alan Richman’s devastating review.

Both characters have left New Orleans (in Delmond’s case, his hometown; in Janette’s, the city where she built–and lost–her own restaurant) for New York and are deeply ambivalent about New Orleans and their relationship to it. Whereas the first season played out these competing emotions between and among New Orleaneans, the introduction of outside points of view indicates a lack of understanding and overall ignorance as well as deeply seated prejudices now serving the dismissal of the city. Both scenes linguistically demarcate outsider status when the interlocutors pronounce the city [ˈnuː ɔrˈliːnz] rather than [nuː ˈɔrliənz] or [nuː ˈɔrlənz] as would be expected and more correct. Janette, in fact, offhandedly corrects the other sous chef.

Delmond has represented the New Orleans expatriate throughout the first season already. He goes where the jobs are and at times seems conflictedly ashamed and dismissive of his roots. In one of the early recording sessions in Season 1, we see him with other New Orleans players play New Orleans music for New Orleans citizens, yet the recording takes place in New York. In fact, the issue of how to mainstream market authentic New Orleans music in order to help the very citizens whose culture gets appropriated is not just the story of the benefit recording but that of jazz itself.

And yet it is too easy as a viewer to vilify Delmond. Beyond the local who leaves and sells out, Delmond is also representative of a musical artist who experimentally rejuvenates and thereby expands traditional jazz. Rather than revisiting an idealized past that never existed, this artist engages with a living and changing tradition, embracing contemporary jazz forms that are merging and changing and defying the static sense of an original and authentic music. In a way then Delmond is both more and less commodified: going where the money is, he also rejects the static repetition of what popular culture has defined as authentic New Orleans. So when he gets praised for having overcome New Orleans jazz, for forging his own way in contrast to the sellouts who play the same old tunes for ignorant tourists, he jumps to New Orleans’ defense. Telling his girl friend that “I get to say that. They don’t.” indicates both an identity position that allows him to criticize a place that remains his home but also suggests that he is aware that their easy dismissal is not the same as his complicated love/hate for the musical traditions that brought him to where he is now.

Likewise, Janette’s scene speaks to outside representation and its potentially harmful effects. The review not only trashes current cuisine in New Orleans but takes a cheap shot at its reputation in general: “I’m not certain the cuisine was ever as good as its reputation in part because the people who consumed, evaluated, and admired it likely weren’t sober enough at the time of ingestion to know what they were eating.” In response, Janette defends the food but also connects it to Katrina and its aftermath. Chefs are not just cooks–in her story, they become heroes. But that is clearly not something reviewers like Richman can understand or appreciate. Janette, who left the city and has given up on it for herself nevertheless won’t let others malign the city or its food.

These moments speak most strongly about the role the general perception and national coverage have played in regard to New Orleans and its slow recovery. Both Delmond and Janette struggle to negotiate their own conflicted emotions while nevertheless defending the city and its citizens to the last. And in the middle of the slow recovery that Season 2 sketches out, the opponents are not only the outsiders such as predatory Nelson Hidalgo, who won’t let a disaster go to waste, but also the somewhat condescending, ignorant, and uncaring outsiders who don’t get the city–and don’t want to.


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