my thoughts on treme

i keep feeling like i should be blogging about the new hbo series treme, like just about every other blogger in new orleans and elsewhere. i did watch the premiere last sunday and then even braved the somewhat triggering thunderstorm that happened last night precisely on my way over to a friend’s house to watch it. (triggering not because of katrina but of our most recent street flooding nightmare back in december, when i drove our car right into several feet of water on our street coming home from the freret market and we had to push the car several blocks through the flood waters to get it on higher ground. i’ve never been so wet in all my life! but such is life in new orleans.)

wendell pierce on set of hbo's "treme"

wendell pierce as antoine batiste on the set of treme, one of the times i was an extra

after last week’s pilot episode, i had many thoughts about the show, many of which i shared one on one with friends. but i had a hard time making myself sit down to write about it because i felt i didn’t have anything to say that everyone else who is writing about it isn’t already saying. i largely agree with the so-far-so-good analysis and the wait-and-see outlook of most locals about the show; it is refreshing and validating to see so many things about our beautiful city and its recovery from the federal floods gotten right. yes.

it is also a little bit hard to watch without letting oneself go back there, to that time and place, regardless of how your individual situation played out – whether you rode the storm and floods out here in the city or evacuated, came back as fast as you could or were displaced near or far away, or remained away for an extended time. regardless of how the events of that time period affected you personally, as a resident of new orleans before august 29, 2005, they definitely affected you deeply, and drudging up those real-life memories by watching a tv show that is based on stories – if not yours, those of your friends, family and neighbors – makes for difficult watching. some folks may be better at blocking their own feelings about the storm and its aftermath and be able to just focus on the tv show on its own merits, but i seem to be struggling with that.

my house, on the right, in october 2005

i am finding that i spend the first half or so of each episode having all kinds of personal memories and emotions brought to the surface which have been buried for a while, triggered by little details in the show. like, in the first episode, the background sound of helicopters flying overhead; i’ll never forget how weird and scary that felt, like we were in some war zone 24/7. and the national guard everywhere, carrying guns, which totally freaked me out. and even little things, like when steve zahn’s character recommends to the do-gooder tourists in the 2nd episode to eat at clover grill for breakfast, i’m reminded of my first visit back to the city in early october and that clover grill was one of the first meals i ate on that trip, with so few restaurants open; i vividly remember the stench of the quarter due to all the refrigerators on the sidewalk and the pervasive flies everywhere, including inside the clover grill. it’s inescapable, the memories, even the few i have being someone who fairly effortlessly evacuated and largely stayed away until things got better. (i was based in louisville, kentucky, post-storm, and drove down every couple of weeks the first few months and then later about once a month until i let my apartment go in late 2006. after that, my return visits were less frequent but i was still in and out of town on a regular basis, mostly to participate in art markets for financial reasons, to stay connected to friends and my community, and to keep my personal hope of returning soon alive.)

at least during these first two episodes, by about halfway through, my brain finally lets go and focuses on the characters and their stories. i wish i had hbo at home and could rewatch each episode, as i feel like i’m missing a lot of what goes on in the first half of the show, so caught up in my own head. however, i do feel like i can say a few things with some certainty about treme:

i think the cinematography is beautiful. it is shot with such attention to detail and in a way that accurately captures the beauty of even the ruin of the city. the lighting, the composition of the shots, the colors – the scene from the pilot of the mardi gras indian chief in full regalia on the pitch-dark street lit like an angel sticks in my mind – everything is very saturated and vivid and, well, real. that’s what life is like here in new orleans. the whole show is just gorgeous to watch from a purely visual point of view. even the opening credits are an amazing visual, all those shots of water lines and mold. (including one by my friend chris kirsch!)

the actors are doing a good job, and i love that so many locals are being used both in speaking and non-speaking roles. wendell pierce being from new orleans (pontchartrain park, specifically) really helps his character. he looks like he’s from here, he talks like he’s from here, because he is from here – even if not from the part of town his character is supposed to be from. khandi alexander is also very impressive so far, as ladonna batiste-williams. and of course i love john goodman’s character. i didn’t know ashley morris or even read him during my post-k time in kentucky, but i’ve become aware of him through others since then and have read his words and can really appreciate what he and his anger and eloquence meant to so many. and i’m grateful for melissa leo’s character, toni burnette, the lawyer working tirelessly to help ladonna find her brother. it’s a very real storyline, and leo plays the role (inspired by real-life civil rights lawyer hero mary howell) well. i think, in general, the casting for this show is spot-on.

the music, of course, rocks! i love that so much music is woven into the episodes, and not just in the background – it is truly focused on. i will hope for a little more diversity of music as the show goes on, but being able to expose more people to traditional new orleans brass bands and jazz is wonderful. i loved the 2nd line scene that opened the pilot, kermit at vaughn’s, the mardi gras indians chanting at the end of the 2nd episode and even crazy coco robicheaux and his chicken. but i would like america to know: there is no strip club on bourbon street that has a live brass band playing in it while skinny naked girls writhe on poles – though who knows, now that it’s aired, one of them is likely to try it! in all seriousness, though, i’m thrilled so many local musicians are getting to act and play their music in the show (and get paid!) – what a boon to the local cultural economy this show is.

i feel like one of the best scenes of the first two episodes so far was at the beginning of last night’s show, when janette desautel (the restauranteur, based on susan spicer) is making eggs on a hot plate, walking from her gutted-to-the-studs downstairs of her home to the largely untouched upstairs, and is on the phone talking about entergy needing to clear the gas lines… and she overcooks her eggs and has a meltdown. that scene was so very poignant and so very real, that the littlest things could touch off a complete sobbing breakdown in the midst of so much that was so overwhelming about life in that time period in the city. it made me cry watching it, and it made me remember how many times that happened to me and to those around me, my friends, as they worked so hard to pick up the pieces of their lives and put it all back together again. that scene alone has been the truest moment thus far for me, and points to how well david simon and company have gotten “it.”

i’m sure i will have more thoughts as the series moves along, and will share them. but in the mean time, i’ll be reading my favorite treme blog, back of town, which features many of the new orleans bloggers i started reading right after the storm and who kept me sane in the ensuing months and years – some of whom are even now my friends. and for you out-of-towners or recent transplants, dave walker’s weekly treme explained posts delve into all the local references that aren’t fleshed out on the show, offering great links and background for watching the series.

(below is the 14+ minute “making treme” behind-the-scenes featurette hbo produced about the show, for those who haven’t seen it yet.)

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