Review: ‘Tremé’ – ‘Poor Man’s Paradise’

A quick review of tonight’s “Tremé” coming up just as soon as the third beer is talking…

Through five seasons of “The Wire” and the first two of “Tremé,” George Pelecanos has developed a reputation as David Simon’s hatchet man. In the next-to-last episode of each season, Pelecanos comes in to do something terrible to a character we’ve grown to care about. In season 1 of “Tremé,” Creighton jumped off the ferry; in season 2, Harley got shot walking Annie home from a big.

By the usual standards, everyone gets off relatively easily in “Poor Man’s Paradise.” A lot of dark things happen, most notably the rapist’s buddies burning down LaDonna’s bar, but everyone who entered the episode breathing leaves the same way. Colson gets beat up by a suspect, but the bruises will heal. LaDonna can rebuild (if she can get together the money). Heck, even some good things happen, like Tranh giving Sonny his blessing (more or less), Desiree and her friend Karen getting what they want from Nelson, or Toni not only getting a witness in the Abreu case but making peace with Terry after she finds out what really happened with Terry and those shell casings.

As I wrote before this season began, Simon, Eric Overmyer and company have been using this year to examine the tricky balance between art and commerce, as many of the characters have had to grapple with both the limits of their talent and the restrictions that come when they try to make money with it. Here, Delmond declines to do the European tour to promote his new album, because he wants to be closer to Albert while the big chief goes through chemo, and his manager warns him that this is a town with a low ceiling, and, “If you stay in New Orleans, you’re making a choice.” For the “Tremé” creative team, they made that choice – making the exact show they want, commercial considerations be damned – a long time ago, but throughout “Poor Man’s Paradise,” we see other characters dealing with it.

Janette found a way to become a success in New Orleans, but she’s quickly losing control of her own menu. The reaction of Janette and the kitchen staff to the blog-driven popularity of the crawfish ravioli dish reminded me in a way of Simon’s reaction to Grantland’s bracket of “Wire” characters: people are liking Janette’s food for the wrong reasons, dammit!

Davis once again loses control of a musical project, as Aunt Mimi bails on the opera CD, driving Davis to want to give up the music business altogether. And rather than take advantage of his abundant free time to reconnect with Annie – who has problems of her own, with Marvin the manager pushing her to take more credit than she deserves for Harley’s songs – Davis continues drifting away from her, too.

Things are largely falling apart for the characters this week, rather than together, but there are moments of hope (like LaDonna visiting Albert in chemo) and the tragedies were smaller-scale this time around. No cursing of Pelecanos’ name this year, even at the site of the fire at Gigi’s.

We’ll be back next week to discuss the finale. Because of the holiday schedule, and because Simon is now in production on the five-episode final season of “Tremé,” I don’t think it’s going to be feasible to do the usual post-mortem interview with him this time. But I’ll have a longer review of the finale – it’s an hour and 15 minutes or so, and among my favorite episodes of the series to date – and the season as a whole next Sunday night.

So go read Dave Walker’s latest episode explainer at his NOLA blog, and then tell me, what did everybody else think?