For a while there, I wondered whether “Treme” was shaping up to be David Simon’s “Stardust Memories.” The second-episode emphasis on a trio of do-gooders from Madison, Wis., who descend on New Orleans after Katrina to help “the lower nine,” which they freely admit they’d never heard of before the storm — I squirmed a little.
Every disaster has do-gooders, and most of them are ignorant of the authentic geography or cultural rhythms of the place they’re seeking to help, but what’s the alternative? People who text HAITI to a number on their cell phones? The ones who buy a ticket to a benefit concert, or tint their Facebook profile picture a certain color in a gesture of solidarity? (Maybe so. Ever since I watched a collection of relief items for Hurricane Hugo victims, and saw car after car of people apparently using it as an excuse to clean out their basements, I’ve made my personal do-gooding a cash-only deal: Send money, and await further instructions.)
The characters in “Treme” were there to build houses with their church group, and people certainly needed those. And while they were daffy and ignorant and didn’t know why it costs extra to get a musician to play “Saints” — and were almost certainly big fans of “The Wire” — they got their wild night out in the real New Orleans, and maybe that was the point of those characters after all. They were there to demonstrate that like all great cities, New Orleans will transform you if you let it. You arrive a cheesehead and leave something else.
And it’s not like Simon spares the natives, either. Another daffy douchebag, the local DJ/layabout Davis McAlary, is one of those guys who has no qualms about lecturing his gay neighbors — gentrifiers! the nerve! — about this or that obscure musician who grew up around this or that corner, figures of towering importance they are somehow diminishing, simply by their presence and their skillful home decor. Of course McAlary, played by the fabulous Steve Zahn, is white himself, but he’s a different kind of white guy. He’s a musician, and even though the sole composition of his we’ve heard is ridiculous, that gives him a license to live there that the gay men lack. He’s the opposite of an Oreo, black on the inside. At least he seems to think so.
(Bonus in-joke: He’s a Goddard College graduate, alma mater of David Mamet and attended by our own J.C. Burns. Ha.)
Treme is a neighborhood, and isn’t in the ninth ward, but the series isn’t as narrow as that. It’s shaping up to be yet another Simonesque look at a suffering city, asking how it got that way, why it stays that way and why we should care. So far, it’s pretty clear: It got that way because a terrible storm collapsed badly constructed and maintained floodwalls; it stays that way because the local civic culture and institutions tolerate and foster incompetence, and the federal government can’t seem to make them change; and we should care because of the music. Music is to “Treme” what drug dealing was to “The Wire,” in this case the literal rhythm of daily life. Brass bands parade down the street. Every bar has a stage, and buskers sing on every corner. Anyone with a tambourine or something to bang on can pour out their joy or misery at the drop of a hat, and does.
I had to watch the third episode twice before I grasped that the uptempo song Dr. John sang near the beginning of the hour, “My Indian Red,” was the same as, or based on, the a capella dirge the Mardi Gras Indians were singing at the end of it, mourning the loss of one of the tribe, whose body had only recently been found. Music is everything in New Orleans, and all it takes is a key or tempo change to take it from joy to sorrow. Or to anger, something you clearly hear in Sonny the street musician’s pissed-off “Saints” for the Madison trio. (And they were right — he was the one who suggested it, not them.)
With four episodes down, you can see subtler themes emerging — the way lopsided success can strain a relationship, the corrupt nature of institutions, the satisfactions and sorrows of personal responsibility, and — that Simon biggie — Why Cities Matter. Although the most interesting character of all, Clarke Peters’ Albert Lambreaux, is working his own thematic agenda entirely, and I’m not sure what it is. His might be a slow-motion crackup caused by PTSD, or maybe just the mystery of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which everyone refers to frequently — “the tradition” — but never actually explains or illuminates. More will be revealed, I’m sure.
And then there’s the Ashley Morris stand-in, Creighton Bernette, who delivered the coup de grace in episode four this week — a version of his best-known rant. (There were so many to choose from.) I can now die happy. I hope Ashley, wherever he was, saw it too. If his own heart hadn’t given out two years ago, I’m sure he would have died of awesomeness, right there.
And that seems the best note to end on, especially as a little investigation yesterday by Sue turned up the sad news of what’s become of our once-regular commenter, Whitebeard, aka Duncan Haimerl. Died of a heart attack while recovering from cancer surgery. One of the obituaries noted:
Duncan’s wife, Nancy, takes solace in the fact that Duncan’s mind and sense of humor never failed him. We saw that as he filed columns a few hours before surgery and soon after he began recovery, joking about the details. Duncan found something he loved – cars, and writing about them – and he never stopped doing it, never lost the pure joy of it.
Nancy would like Duncan’s old colleagues and friends to know about the news, and that his suffering at the end was minimal.
RIP, pal. If there’s an afterlife, Ashley’s there, and this week, he’s buying every round.