For those tempted to dismiss me for crudity, bone refers to the trombone, and the titular man plays one.
The incredible Wendell Pierce, formerly the detective Bunk Moreland on the HBO show The Wire, now portrays Antoine Batiste, hand-to-mouth New Orleans trombone player, and like the rest of the characters coping sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly with the death and devastation left in the wake of Katrina. He’s the center of the show for me. Though Treme has a large ensemble cast, when a trombone player scraping by from gig to gig is the spiritual center of a show then it has me at hello.
That’s because Antoine, despite the paltry financial reward does what he does and sticks with it, because he loves doing it, reveres the music and the history behind the music, feels connected to it, knowing deep in his soul that his role in the milieu of N’awlins musicians remains the core of his identity. And these are the sort of folks who live in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans that is the focus of the show: lots of musicians, but also writers, chefs, DJ’s, bar owners as well as a lawyer who serves the city’s down and out.
Treme just started its second season on HBO, and it’s more of the same from last year which is a good thing. Now fourteen months post-Katrina, the picking up the pieces, occasionally literally, continues, as do, even more importantly the extraordinary ordinary lives, if you can buy that oxymoron, of the people depicted.
David Simon, the show’s creator, and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, has been the principal behind two of the best dramas ever to grace the idiot box: Homicide: Life on the Streets, based on his own book recounting his years of crime and cop reporting for the Baltimore Sun; and The Wire, for my money and that of many others a television monument, as compelling a piece of art in any form that one will ever encounter.
Simon’s overarching concern is the depiction of life in America’s big cities, in particular corners of those cities under-covered by media, and rarely if ever as much as grazed by a popular entertainment piece. The Wire’s depiction of police, educational, media and political bureaucracies in Baltimore, as well as the top to bottom organizational dynamics of America’s inner city retail drug business, rank and file policemen and rank and file drug soldiers and drug users is unlike anything you’ll ever see.
Treme at times deals too with the municipal nitty-gritty, with its mix of cynicism, incompetence, dedication, neglect, bureaucratic pantomime and sometimes downright disorienting weirdness. But its focus is the centrality of the artistic and hedonistic elements that make a city, this one in particular and perhaps even more broadly life itself viscerally and emotionally satisfying: the music, food, sex and communalism literally embodied in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
I say up front that this is not a show for everybody simply because there is little conventional action or drama. But note the word conventional. There is a great deal of human drama as the lives of these intriguing characters play out. Music is the essential ingredient in the show, for the most part music indigenous to New Orleans, and it’s the emulsion that binds it all together. But besides the finely detailed naturalism of these day to day lives, there is surely much that is life and death in the storylines dealing with Katrina specifically, and matters surrounding it, locally and otherwise.
Besides Pierce there’s an incredible cast of actors from Melissa Leo to Steve Zahn to Khandi Alexander to David Morse to Clarke Peters only to name a few, and a gazillion cameos by locally famous, nationally famous and world famous musicians, all of their appearances woven into episodes seamlessly, unobtrusively and always flavorfully.
If you’re one of those people who can enjoy with enormous satisfaction a novel, film or television show that first and foremost thoroughly immerses you in a world that is all its own, there’s a good chance that Treme is your cup of Morning Thunder.