'Treme' season premiere: No vampires or incest, but this still might be the weirdest show on HBO (in a good way)

Treme-Alexander

Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi

I don’t like jazz. Or at least I never thought I did. So when Treme debuted last year, my reaction was fairly similar to most people: I watched the series premiere, realized that it wasn’t The Wire, and didn’t watch again. Boy, did I miss out. I happened to check out Treme‘s second episode a couple weeks ago — thanks, On Demand! — and got hooked. I raced through the rest of Treme‘s ten-episode first season in a matter of days. The last time I binged so hardcore on a TV series was…well, when I was watching The Wire.

It’s hard to describe Treme‘s particular appeal. On paper, it seems imposing to the point of exhaustion. There are dozens of characters, most of them only loosely connected by virtue of basic geography. The show is so steeped in local New Orleans culture that the Times-Picayune has a weekly column, “Treme Explained,” that decodes the series’ relentless local references for us non-natives. It’s so New Orleans that it can feel like you’re watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Unlike on HBO siblings True Blood or Game of Thrones, there’s not really a grabby audience hook — no graphic pansexual orgies, no fantasy creatures, no crazy wigs. There is violence on Treme, but it’s never fun; there is sex on Treme, but it’s usually just a respite from the bleakness of post-Katrina life.

Treme is also a show that is much more about intricately-detailed moments than narrative progress — if you read a plot synopsis of the first season, you’d be forgiven for thinking that not very much happened. EW’s Ken Tucker summed up Treme‘s style as “a new rhythm for TV storytelling,” but I can understand how the casual viewer might think Treme is a show without a center. (In this, Treme is similar to the recent seasons of Mad Men, another great show that plenty of people can’t stand because of the glacial plot.)

But here’s the best and simplest thing I can say about the show: It made me learn to love jazz. An average hour of Treme features more musical sequences than a typical episode of Glee, and the show works hard to illustrate how beautiful music comes from dark, bitter emotions. When you see perpetually-harried trombonist Antoine (Wendell Pierce) lift up his instrument and start playing, it’s simultaneously an escape from drudgery and a release of all his pent-up anger and anxiety. Moments like that make this show a truly unique, genuinely fun experience. That’s why I tell people not to worry if they don’t entirely understand the plot. The music, the atmosphere, the feeling of humanity striving for greatness — That’s what Treme is all about.

Last night’s season premiere kicked off seven months after the conclusion of last season. Some things haven’t changed — LaDonna’s husband is still telling her to sell the bar and move to Baton Rouge; Antoine’s baby-mama is still insisting that he get a real job; Sonny is still drunk, unshaven, and Dutch. David Morse has a much larger role as a police lieutenant, indicating that this season will focus on New Orleans’ rising crime wave. It also seems like his character is being set up as a romantic partner for the grieving Toni, which should seem like a cheap plot machination, but Morse and Melissa Leo have dynamite chemistry.

Jon Seda (so good in The Pacific) is joining the cast as a majestically shady developer with friends in high places. He’s also the cousin of one of my favorite supporting characters, the Bouncer from Texas, who still doesn’t know where to find music in New Orleans six months after moving there. In a nice grace note, Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary is dating ace fiddler Annie — hooray, let’s hope it lasts! Up in New York, Davis’ old friend-with-benefits Janette is working for a tyrant chef. She’s also living with Ziggy Sobotka. (Hey, I’ll stop making Wire references when they stop making it so easy!)

Treme isn’t perfect. I never found Delmond’s storyline all that interesting last season. Something about the character’s interior conflict — tradition vs. modernity, New Orleans vs. New York — felt a little bit too on-the-nose. Still, it was surprisingly compelling watching Delmond square off last night against some Manhattanite intellectuals who bandied around terms like “deracinated” and argued that contemporary New Orleans music is little more than waxwork minstrelsy. Of course, Delmond feels the same way — but he’s actually from New Orleans, gosh darn it, so he’s allowed to hate it.

That paradoxical thinking pops up everywhere on Treme. The show loves its city, but it’s not shy about exposing the corruption that was present in New Orleans long before Katrina arrived. No other movie or TV show has ever made New Orleans look better. No other movie or TV show has ever made New Orleans look worse. Treme is an undeniably weird show. It’s slow-paced and practically opaque, it might not be for everybody. But I urge you to give it a try. Hey, if it’s possible to enjoy a show about giant wolves and hottie twincest and ice zombies and wigs, isn’t it also possible to enjoy a show about good music, good food, and the death and life of an American city? Treme and Game of Thrones aren’t really all that different: They’re both about the battle for power, and how average people get swept up in the tidal waves of history. But only one of them comes with a trombone section.

Did you watch the Treme premiere? Did you like the new credits sequence? Seriously, can you even believe this show has somehow gotten a second season?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Comments (43 total) Add your comment
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  • Alex

    Stupid Show, I think it is horrible to have a show this disconnected with post-Katrina life. I wonder if they actually got REAL Katrina survivors input, or if it Hollywood winging it?

    • Samantha

      Effing EW shills. They always seem to come back and LOVE the shows to co-inside with whoever bought AD SPACE IN THIS MONTH’S PRINT MAG.
      You can’t trust A WORD these disingenuous EW bloggers put down.
      Typical BS. It’s just AD SPACE.

      • Terry

        Co-inside? LOL.

    • Micah

      The shows creator eric overmeyer was from new orleans. most of the characters (davis, ladonna) are based on real people. wendell peirce grew up in the the treme. his “baby-momma” is from the lower ninth and was featured in spike lees “when the levees broke” and God willin, and the creak don’t rise” the show has an abundance of new orleans influence, commentary and input, trust and believe. this is a david simon show, he wouldn’t touch a subject he didn’t experince or have people around him that didn’t experience it. this is probably the LEAST hollywood show on any network.

      • Todd

        Amen, Micah.

      • K8

        Thank you!

      • laylagalise

        Tell it!

    • Martin

      alex– new orleans is not for everyone, that is for sure. i live here and sometimes i cannot watch the show. but i can tell you, from a natives point of view, there is little hollywood in treme. it is pretty damn loyal to new olreans. some people find that a good thing, others, like you, who do not like the city — well, i can see where you would find it annoying. the show is like the city — completely original and only for the diehards.

      • Ronnie1

        Ditto, Martin. I am not from New Orleans, I am from Texas. But I love the city, the food, the people and most of all, the music! NO city is perfect, and you saw that in “The Wire”…so just sit back, enjoy the series..If you don’t like it…DON’T WATCH IT!

  • Tahoe Mike

    No worries Darren, all the cool people get to the party late. Treme is one of the best things on TV. It does play more like an album, than a collection of singles. I mean the kind of album where you put on the headphones, and pour over the album cover for days.I am so glad that it’s back.

    • Samantha

      Pretentious Deeebag.

      • Tahoe Mike

        Jacomo fi na nay!

      • LOL

        This thread owns Samantha emotionally.

      • Greta

        Let’s take a quiz. Samantha is so furious at the idea of anybody liking a show she doesn’t like because (a) her ex-boyfriend liked it, (b) EW could’ve written yet another article about the thing SHE loves move, be it Jensen Ackles or Twilight, or (c) she’s just trolling in an unusual venue and isn’t very good at it yet? Cast your vote!

      • @Greta

        Definitely (c). She’s been a busy little troll.

    • Tego Livi

      1. pore over
      2. most people didn’t watch expecting The Wire, because very few people saw The Wire.
      3. As for me, I wouldn’t bother with this show even if I had HBO, because New Orleans has never interested me. I know a lot of people find the unique combination of background music, louche decadence, racial politics, weather tragedy, and poverty fascinating, but I don’t.

      • kevinflynn

        You don’t watch, yet you took the time to spew negativity all over it… What a charmer!.

        Anyway, great show, I’ve never been to New Orleans but fell in love with it thru Treme. I’m greatly looking forward to this seaeon.

      • Zakry

        Seriously, you had nothing worthwhile to say. Go find something to do.

      • tg

        When the reviewer wrote about the Wire vs. Oz I found myself disagreeing completely, opposite feelings actually. I found Oz riveting and the wire kind of overrated (besides season 3 and Omar, the character). HBO series are always getting a much ballyhooed reception. It’s hard to know which to take seriously. In Treatment is overblown, as is True Blood, while Bored to Death is hysterically underplayed. It’s a mixed bag.

  • t.g. pierson

    I don’t have HBO but I watched the first season in three days on blu-ray. Treme is a one of a kind. An elaborate kaleidoscope of characters and themes. I thought the pilot was a masterpiece and after the glorious first 10 episodes I declared it one of the greatest TV series I have ever seen. Treme pulsates with life, love, humor, vitality, food and oh boy that music. I know that Treme is not for everyone, so too bad for them.

    • Samantha

      Fruitcake. Shove that kaleidoscope up your pulsating behind.

      • t.g. pierson

        Gladly…after you pull it out of yours.

  • Frak!

    Jazz is one of Queen’s most underrated albums.. How dare you sir?!

  • NOLADude

    I live in New Orleans and have to admit that while I often defended the first season, I wasn’t sure that I really liked it. It had too many characters (I thought) and felt too self-conscious about “getting it right.” Then I rewatched the episodes a few weeks ago and appreciated them in a new way–there are a lot of tiny moments that turn out to be there for a reason if you pay attention. The new season, it seems, is even better. In particular, it has gained an incredible sense of humor. Can’t wait to see the rest of the season.

    And to Alex: what’s so horrible about a show on post-Katrina life? (It’s kind of like, what if they did a show about life after WWII, or what if they did a show about the violent middle ages–oh, that’s right, they have already.)

  • Tonic

    Darren, this piece is so well-written it’s hard to believe it’s on EW. Thanks!

  • Ryu66

    I love the series but was a bit disappointed with last night’s show. The chef stuff seemed, frankly, ridiculous — the head chef felt way too over-the-top. Kinda ironic, because the only reason I gave this show a try was because I heard Bourdain was writing for it. I saw all of last seasons episodes On Demand a couple of weeks ago.

    • danball

      the wire is now the second best show ever on t.v. the music, the food, the culture will never be understood by anyone who hasn’t been to n.o. or, perhaps, never got out once in. great individual performances by the pros but even better cameos from the locals. jazz fest this weekend. bon temps roulet!

  • Gern Blanston

    Comparing Treme – with a real plot and a compelling series of events – with Game of Thrones, which is basically soft-core pornography designed to give a hard on to the Star Trek set? OK, whatever. Don’t really see the comparison, but this isn’t the first time I’ve disagreed with an EW reviewer.

    I’ve watched it from the season premiere. Don’t really get why it’s just now dawning on people it’s a fantastic series, but to many people anything not set in New York or L.A. (or variously set in “flyover country”) isn’t worth bothering with. Which is why it’s so delicious to watch New Yorkers get a richly-deserved skewering for a change.

  • kaliga

    I LOVE TREME!

  • Karate Pants

    I’ve been hoping to find a drama to void that has been created by the long wait for Mad Men and the end of Big Love…but nothing in this article makes me think Treme would be the one. It sounds like it lacks broad appeal and relatability.

    • Karate Pants

      I’m open to suggestions, though – just no cop, doctor, or lawyer shows.

  • outside agitator

    Treme is a great show which I can only describe as a reality show…except real. it doesn’t feel scripted at all. the music sequences make Glee’s sound like a kindergarten sing-a-long. the characters and locations feel authentic. great show and here’s hoping it doesn’t get Deadwood-ed by HBO honchos who prefer the ratings of vampire porn.

  • Sara

    I’m torn on this show. I LOVE the music, but sometimes it feels like they rely too heavily on those scenes. I also like the cast, but don’t much care for the characters. They’re either annoying, boring or completely unsympathetic. However, I trust in David Simon & Co. to provide some pay off for viewers.
    In all honesty, I wasn’t going to give it a second chance, but they added James Ransone and I heard (please be true) that Jeff Carisalez (the Texas
    Bouncer) would have a bigger role this season. What can I say? I’m a sucker for those two.

  • Dumbledore Fluffernutter

    “I’ve been hoping to find a drama to void”
    LOL
    Maybe I’ll give Treme another chance, but the pilot was very pretentious and boring.
    BTW Samantha is obviously a guy

  • SHelly

    I LOVE Treme. I made it to the first season, and couldn’t wait for the second. I wash hoping for more dialogue and story line, and less music. My only complaint is instead of giving us a taste of the music, they tend to force the audience to listen to the entire song. If you watched the first season, I think you would understand that we get it. No need to take up a good 15 minutes of the show with music. Otherwise, I’m hoping to see some of the same writing brilliance that inspired the Wire. A show that never got it’ s rightful place as one of the best shows ever to grace tv. Boy, I miss Omar, Michael and the crew. LOL

  • Russ

    Only reason I put Treme on originally was because of how amazing the Wire was. I plowed through season 1 in a week. The show isn’t the Wire, but then again few shows are. But it is one of the best things going on TV right now, seeing it paired up with Game of Thrones gives me 2 fantastic hours of TV to look forward to Sunday nights. For a few weeks anyways.

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