TV review: Treme

By Columbus Alive
From the September 27, 2012 edition

Season 3 of “Treme” began with a familiar exchange as Antoine Batiste (the always engaging and enjoyable Wendell Pierce) haggles with a cab driver over the cost, this time using the Pythagorean theorem. It’s fitting way to begin the new season of “Treme,” a series that — like Antoine and his frugal ways when it comes to paying for cabs — hasn’t changed a whole lot over the course of its run. It doesn’t mean “Treme” doesn’t have meaningful movements for its characters and their stories, just that the show doesn’t follow a traditional TV show model.

Creator and showrunner David Simon has never been one to follow TV’s episodic structure. Even Simon’s most acclaimed and popular series, “The Wire” was best watched in large, preferably season-long, chunks at a time. “Treme” tells the story of New Orleans in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina through its eccentric and well-developed local characters. It is a slow comeback for the city, and “Treme” conveys this with meticulous detail, all through the eyes of its characters.

I don’t anxiously await a new season or next episode of “Treme,” but damn I’m happy when John Boutte’s “Treme Song” comes on. I like the show very much, but I — and probably others — don’t make a strong effort to follow the series on a weekly basis. Like I said, Simon’s work is best watched in blocks because narrative and thematic through-lines take a while to cultivate, and “Treme” — even more so that “The Wire” — is the best example of this structural phenomenon.

“Treme” hasn’t had too many explosive or shocking moments, but it has built an incredible foundation with these characters. It makes for compelling television that can be anywhere from fun and hilarious to heartbreaking and tragic. Whether it’s following Antoine’s love and frustration with his life as a musician, or Toni Bernette’s (Melissa Leo) cases and dealings with the worthless police department, or seeing LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) picking herself up after being victimized by a brutal attack, “Treme” tells stories masterfully. Even the impetuous Davis (Steve Zahn) has incredible, if incredibly small, moments — in one, Davis gives an exuberant but ultimately depressing historical tour of New Orleans’ musical roots.

Speaking of New Orleans music, “Treme” has the most eclectic and electrifying score of any television show. The characters — Antoine, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), his modern jazz-playing son Delmond (Rob Brown), violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli) — serve as entry points to the various styles of music on “Treme,” but the story often breaks for a wonderful piece of music.

“Treme” does so many things so well that I’m often surprised that it doesn’t earn more fanfare. Then I realize you have to take a step back from the series to appreciate everything going on, and that’s something people rarely do with a television show. Too often, water-cooler moments define what’s considered the best TV — and to be fair, the best series create the best of those moments. But “Treme” has reached best TV status without such endeavors; just by staying true to itself, its characters and its city.