TREME: Sunday 9PM on HBO
You don’t need big ratings to be considered a success on HBO (just ask Lena Dunham), but generating buzz is essential. That’s something TREME never did, despite a small hard core of enthusiastic fans that can sometimes drive that kind of attention. Perhaps it was the downbeat setting of New Orleans immediately following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, or the extremely ethnic cast, or the fact that most of its characters were middle-or-lower class and middle-aged, rather than young and trendy, or the show’s multiplicity of casually related storylines, or just the fact that it could never compare to series co-creator (with Eric Overmyer) David Simon’s legendary The Wire (itself more a phenomenon of buzz than high ratings when it first aired). In any case, given its low visibility Treme is lucky it’s even survived to a truncated 5-episode final Season 4, a gift from HBO its die-hard fans and to Simon, who helped put the network on the zeitgeist map.
Having just 5 hours left to wrap everything up hasn’t changed Treme‘s unhurried approach to storytelling, powered as often by music and mood as by plot. The season premiere, written by Simon, Overmyer and Executive Producer (not to mention esteemed novelist) George Pelecanos, picked up with Election Night 2008, a moment of unaccustomed optimism for the series regulars and for New Orleans in general. By the time the opening credits were over, it was clear that this excitement aside, only a few things had changed since we last saw our characters–LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), preparing to open her new bar, is officially a couple with Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), whose cancer is in remission; chef Janette (Kim Dickens), having survived her awful experience with a corporate-funded restaurant, is about to try again on her own; pariah cop Terry Colson (David Morse) is sharing crusading lawyer Toni Bernette’s (Melissa Leo) home; hustling entrepreneur Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) is suddenly scrambling after heavy losses in the stock market. Mostly, though, their lives move forward incrementally. Gradually, when he wasn’t even looking, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) has become more a teacher (and as he ruefully notes, a father figure) than a working musician, while violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli) is nearing the point where she’ll have to decide whether authenticity or wider success is her goal. Or, in the case of Davis (Steve Zahn), the show’s pothead conscience, there’s no change at all: he’s still reluctantly working at the radio station, still barely making ends meet with his own musical gigs, still the best of friends with his exes but unable to make a relationship work, and still madly, wildly happy when he hears the next great new piece of music.
For Treme, as for Davis, authenticity isn’t a question, but a manifesto (naysayers would say stridently so). If the thread introduced in the season premiere is picked up–never a certainty with Treme–and Davis becomes friendly with Hidalgo, a man passionate only about his own success, that will be a fascinating mix of mind-sets. Treme exists in equal parts elation and despair at the great city it depicts and what has befallen it. Its cameras are always open to the real-life musical greats who are willing to perform before them (in sequences mostly recorded live, a tricky maneuver carried out expertly by its directors, in tonight’s case Anthony Hemingway), but it’s also ever-mindful of the official corruption, incompetence, misconduct and worse that beset its residents. For some of us, spending an hour watching the show’s glorious ensemble of actors interplay with that music and those deeply-felt stories is pure pleasure, but we’re in a niche that was never large enough. The month of December, though, is rich with the promise of Treme‘s final bow.