The Fabulous Jackson Square All-Stars

I’m in New Orleans for a conference.  Although I’ve been to other parts of Louisiana, it’s the first time I’ve visited the Crescent City.

I got in this afternoon and took a stroll to get my bearings and get some exercise, besides.  While walking past Jackson Square I heard the strains of some New Orleans jazz from a street group called the Jackson Square All-Stars.  They were awesome!  I was amazed by the quality of the playing and the tightness of the band as they rolled through classics like Little Liza Jane and seemed to have a very good time doing so.

So, I sat for a while, savoring the experience and the sunshine and the great music, and felt like I was an extra in a scene from Treme.

Hangin’ in the Treme

Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux in Treme

When I was sick with a cold last week, I spent almost three entire days watching seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire, one episode after another. It was so enjoyable that I almost regretted getting better. I’m not sure which I would prefer: to have a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat while observing McNulty, Freamon and Daniels struggling against a miasma of crime and byzantine government institutions, or to be well and step out into the dull real world.

After my personal Wire marathon, I realized that I had seen every season of the show, some of them twice. Yet, I was addicted to the writers’ point of view of America. The solution was for me to give Treme a shot, since it was created by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and shares much of The Wire‘s writers and cast.

I’d been reluctant to check out Treme because it has a reputation for being boring. When HBO approved a second season for the show, I remember seeing comments on the internet to the effect of, “maybe something will happen this season.”

I suspect that the people who claim that nothing happens in Treme only liked The Wire for its gunfight scenes. There isn’t much of that in Treme (only one scene that I can remember featured gunshots), but the same elements that made The Wire a brilliant show are there: compelling characters and a realistic, informative portrayal of American life.

One of the many themes Treme shares with The Wire is the inefficacy of America’s government. Both shows believe that America’s true character is in its people, not in the actions of its government, which is depicted as a distant, blunt force controlled clumsily by selfish hands. See, for example, the plotline in season 3 of The Wire in which Major Colvin establishes a drug-tolerance-zone (“Hamsterdam”) that works wonders for the community but that the police commissioners shut down because it makes them look bad.

Treme concentrates on the way the federal government bungled its response to Katrina. One of the show’s main characters, Albert “Big Chief” Labreaux (played by Clarke Peters, Lester Freamon in The Wire), occupies a housing project that was shut down despite the fact that it wasn’t damaged much in the storm. It’s implied that the “fucking fucks” in the federal and local government (as they are called by John Goodman’s character, a Tulane professor), aren’t eager to see New Orleans’ poor, black population return.

Another character, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, spends most of the season trying to figure out what happened to her brother, who was mistakenly jailed hours before the storm and was then lost in the system. With the help of an attorney working pro bono, she circumvents the defense mechanisms of the local government to discover that her brother died from head wounds that he supposedly got from a fall from a bunkbed. She finds his corpse stored in the back of a refrigerated semi-truck, next to dozens of other unidentified bodies.

One of the shows most powerful subplots, I thought, involved LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk in The Wire), a trombonist who’s always desperate for a gig. After Antoine accidentally bumps his trombone into the side of a police car, the police arrest him. His instrument and his livelihood disappear. He is rescued by a Japanese man who loves New Orleans’ music so much that he flew in after the storm to help struggling musicians. When the man buys him a shiny new trombone, Antoine looks sort of sad and confused, and that’s the way I felt too. Why must a foreigner step in to protect New Orleans’ culture from the local government?

The characters in Treme come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: a passion for New Orleans’ culture. In the first scene of the first episode, John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, throws a British journalist’s microphone into the Gulf after the journalist suggests that New Orleans isn’t worth saving because its music and cuisine are over the hill. In addition to occupying the housing projects, “Big Chief” Lambreaux does all he can to bring his Indian tribe back to New Orleans to perform their traditional dances in feathery costumes.

At first I didn’t like Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a goatee’d, overenthusiastic white guy who has disavowed his old-money family in order to embrace New Orleans’ traditional music and squalor. By the end of the season, however, I felt the same way about him that many of the other characters seem to: his passion made him worth having around. In the last episode, he tries to persuade his friend not to flee to New York by spending a day showing her the cream of New Orleans’ culture. His friend, a creole chef, is forced to move after her business fails due to damages done to her restaurant by Katrina.

Treme’s big message is that New Orleans is worth saving, and that it would save itself even without the support of its country. It seems ridiculous that a show would need to argue for saving a city with hundreds of years of history and culture behind it, not to mention millions of inhabitants, but the belief that New Orleans should be abandoned because of its unfortunate geographic position is disturbingly common. I’ve heard it not only from the media but from people I’ve met in real life. The fact that the wealthiest nation in the world has to even consider whether it wants to spend the money to save one of its oldest cities shows a big flaw in America’s culture.

Treme, Season Two

Last year, Kish and I followed the HBO series Treme.  We started watching because it was created by the same people who made The Wire, one of the best TV shows ever.  That’s why we started to watch it, but I’m not sure exactly why we kept watching it.  The show didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and we really didn’t connect with any of the characters or their stories.  In fact, we found some of the characters to be insufferable and most of the others to be annoying.  When one of the characters — a know-it-all, churlish professor played by John Goodman — committed suicide in an act that seemed completely inconsistent with his persona, we threw up our hands.

This year we’ve started watching again . . . and I’m still not sure exactly why.  The characters are no more likable, or even understandable, than they ever were.  Even though everyone apparently is struggling in the ravaged, post-Katrina world, they all seem to have enough money to buy drinks at any given moment.  And boy, are there are lot of characters, and a lot of story lines!  We see little snippets of their lives, and then there is a performance by a New Orleans musical act that is somehow connected to the story arc, and then we see another brief yet deeply meaningful episode involving someone else.  It’s like TV for people with ADD who can’t stand to watch a scene that lasts longer than 30 seconds.  The only positive thing about this year, so far, is a new, hustler-type character who is in The Big Easy to try to strike it rich from all of the federal cash pouring in.  At last, someone whose motivations I can understand!

When I watch this show, I feel like I am just doing my duty for the people who created The Wire.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who actually likes this show and can explain why.

Please, Hit Him Again

Kish and I continue to watch Treme, the new HBO series on post-Katrina New Orleans.  We’re hoping to find something that grabs us.  So far, our overwhelming reaction is that virtually none of the characters is particularly likable, whether they are behaving irresponsibly, bloviating about how great New Orleans music and culture are supposed to be, or looking concerned about how their beloved city is responding to a colossal disaster.  I know we are supposed to be rooting for these folks, but it really isn’t easy.

The character we most despise is Davis McAlary, a shrimpy, soul-patched loser who can’t hold a job.  McAlary is an insufferable musical snob who thinks he is just about the coolest guy ever to pulse along with one of the music at one of the New Orleans parades that seem to occur every day.  In the most recent episode, McAlary unwisely used the “n” word in a bar and got a punch to the chops to commemorate his stupidity and cloddish insensitivity.  What does it say about a character when you wish he would have been decked again?  I don’t know if McAlary is supposed to be detestable, but if so Steve Zahn, who is playing him on the show, deserves an Emmy.

We’re sticking with Treme for now, but five episodes in I have to say it has been a disappointment.

Reserving Judgment On Treme

Over the years, Kish and I have loved many of HBO’s series.  The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire are some of the finest TV programs ever made.   So, we looked forward with tremendous anticipation to Treme, a show made by the creators of The Wire and set in New Orleans only a few months after Hurricane Katrina.

Let me begin by making an admission that fatally undercuts the credibility of everything else I am about the say:  I have not been able to stay awake through an entire episode yet.  I start with great intentions and commitment, get energized by some terrific New Orleans music, and then after watching a bunch of seemingly random characters move without apparent purpose through the extremely depressing, brutalized post-Katrina landscape, I doze off.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but maybe it also says something about the show’s pace.  I never nodded off during The Sopranos or The Pacific.

There are things to like about Treme.  I admire Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, the very talented actors who play, respectively, Antoine Batiste and Albert Lambreaux.  Pierce is a very convincing and likable trombone player who obviously has a musician’s commitment issues; Lambreaux plays a sad-faced, commanding figure I haven’t quite figured out.  I like the idea of having long scenes that include some excellent music, although at times those scenes don’t fit too well with the flow of the show.  Some of the show’s characters — like the angry professor played by John Goodman — are a bit over the top, but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt because they obviously have been deeply scarred by the sight of their city brought to its knees by a horrible catastrophe.

One thing I can say with assurance, based on the portions of the two episodes I’ve watched before drifting off into the Land of Nod.  Davis McAlary, the appalling goateed DJ played by Steve Zahn, is the most annoying TV character I’ve every watched.  He seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  He is a slob.  He is a rude and mean-spirited neighbor.  He is an arrogant liar.  He is a looter and a thief.  He drinks the most expensive wine at his girlfriend’s restaurant without permission or compensation.  He has temperamental outbursts when asked to play songs from a playlist.  He bugs people like Elvis Costello who are trying to watch a nightclub show in peace.  Are we supposed to like this jerk or find him interesting?  I sure don’t.  I can’t imagine why his chef/restauranteur girlfriend wouldn’t kick his sorry ass to the curb in a nanosecond, or why Elvis Costello wouldn’t bitch-slap him for telling obvious falsehoods about his musical abilities.  In my view, when that character is on the screen he sucks the wind out of the show every time.  Couldn’t a corrupt FEMA official take him out and do us all a favor?

We’ll keep watching, because I think the show has obvious potential — but it is a slow start so far.  Right now, my short-term goal is just to watch an episode through to its conclusion without being overwhelmed by slumber.