One problem with welcoming back David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s “Treme” for its brief, five-episode finish is that “Treme” already gave itself a lovely and conclusive sign-off at the end of its third season — a year ago. It behaved like a show that knew it would be canceled, and so it wrapped up nearly all of its characters’ story lines with affection and a respect for the handful of fans (including me) who stuck around.
But people who are obsessed with New Orleans are particularly good at finding any reason to return and bask once more in its music and culture, even if they were just there. The point of New Orleans is that you might leave, but it never stops.
This new seasonette (which begins Sunday night on HBO) therefore winds up feeling more like an attempt to keep the party going, or, at the very least, it comes across as an unnecessary act of charity on the network’s part. “Treme’s” strength and weakness is the way its metabolism resembles that of the city itself; the show seemed true because it defied television’s demand for breakneck speed and action.
Fans of Simon’s other work (notably “The Wire”) were mostly befuddled by “Treme’s” tendency to interrupt its narrative every few minutes with nightclub scenes of musicians performing and crowds simply enjoying themselves. After so many movies and shows that tried and failed to convey life in New Orleans, only “Treme” understood the disruptive allure of laissez les bon temps rouler, without lapsing too far into the genre of tourism-boosting. The show was always willing to stop for a song and a reverie, as if the plot could always wait for the next episode — or simply remain unresolved.
That’s what gave “Treme” its visual and musical richness, but this time it verges on the tedious. There’s just not enough to do anymore with these characters and, more tellingly, a reluctance to upend their lives. This time we see “Treme” for what it mostly was: an effusive op-ed set to music. The show had something important to tell us — right after this next song — and then forgot what it wanted to say.
“Treme” resumes its story in late 2008, some 38 months after Hurricane Katrina and the disastrous levee breaks that followed. It comes to an end just after Mardi Gras of 2009, still one year shy of the New Orleans Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl victory — an event considered by many New Orleanians to be a fitting bookend (if only a symbolic salve) to the Katrina tragedy. It’s a moment of crowning glory I would have liked to have seen told from “Treme’s” perspective.
Instead, the heady fumes of hope waft from the presidential election of Barack Obama, a true cause for celebration in a town that reviled his predecessor. Things brighten a bit: Activist lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) finds renewed interest from federal prosecutors in the post-Katrina injustices she’s so doggedly pursued, while her now-boyfriend Terry Colson (David Morse), a police detective, prepares to sacrifice his career in order to testify about corruption.
At one point I invested in “Treme’s” characters the way I did with many shows. But this time it occurred to me that, all along, it was difficult to discern which of them most represented the show’s essence — who and what was I supposed to root for the most?
Most easily, it was Wendell Pierce’s Antoine Batiste, the trombonist who couldn’t catch a break. Or it was Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux, the resilient chief of a group of Mardi Gras Indians, now facing end-stage cancer. Or it was Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams, the bar owner who left her marriage to a dentist to offer comfort to Lambreaux.
There is also Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), the DJ and failed musician who turns 40 and briefly frets that he’s wasted his life sentimentalizing and inhaling New Orleans in all its glory. Don’t forget the struggling restaurateur (Kim Dickens); or the recovered heroin addict (Michiel Huisman) who married the daughter of a Vietnamese shrimp-boat captain; or Albert’s musician son, Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), ambivalent about his ties to the city and its jazz scene; or the carpetbagging Texan (Jon Seda) who made a fortune on the back of the Katrina recovery efforts.
Setting aside all those characters (and more), it would appear that “Treme’s” creators and writers consider the final moral center of the show to rest in Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), the classical violinist who found increasing success as a Cajun-flavored fiddler/singer/songwriter. Now on the verge of a major-label breakout, Annie struggles with issues of authenticity vs. commercialism — a story line as old as moss and, alas, a redundant drag on “Treme’s” energies as the show keeps returning to her.
Simon and company only seem peripherally interested in telling the story of the violent crime waves that came with the recovery. Perhaps they don’t wish to distort the magnitude of statistics, instead focusing on a couple of telling tragedies: A shooting interrupts a Mardi Gras parade; Antoine mourns the murder of a student in his band class.
“We love this city, but it needs to love us back,” one of the dead girl’s classmates says at a candlelight vigil. It’s a swipe at New Orleans’s persistently split personality — so enamored of its culture and image and so often helpless in the face of its despair. It could also be an indictment of “Treme” itself — so fixated on exalting New Orleans that it became only nominally concerned with showing its problems. For a proper finish, “Treme” needed more problems to solve, of a personal as well as a municipal nature.
Still, there is much to enjoy in “Treme’s” protracted goodbye. It is, as always, beautifully filmed and patiently assembled. Everyone in it clearly believes in the project (and the city) down to their bones, even if the writers have shortchanged their best actors this time. What comes through most is a feeling of over-indulgence — one drink too many, one plate of etouffee too far, one too many hangovers and five too many episodes of an otherwise memorable series.
What could be more New Orleans than an inability to call it a night?
(one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO. (Concludes Dec. 29.)