‘Treme’ – ‘Accentuate the Positive’: Home and away

Senior Television Writer
04.24.11 47 Comments

“Treme” is back for a new season. I offered a general review of the new season back on Wednesday, and now I have some thoughts on the season two premiere coming up just as soon as I use the word “minstrel”…

“Fourteen months and it ought to be getting better here. Fourteen months and it ought to be getting easier. It ought to be getting fixed. You feel me? Well it isn’t. It gets harder every day.” -Sofia

Like the title of the episode, “Treme” wants to accentuate the positive in its season premiere, but not without ignoring the realities that this city, and these characters, are still facing 14 months after the storm (and 7 months after the end of the first season).

The opening sequence deftly blends both sadness and optimism. It’s a gorgeous fall day, and though we spend much of it in the cemetery, it’s not a draining experience. LaDonna, her mother are far removed enough from Daymo’s death that they can focus more on their love of him than their grief. Ditto Antoine serenading his mentor’s grave. Ditto Toni and Sofia getting to eat at Creighton’s favorite lemon ice place (which he discussed with Janette back in the series premiere); Sofia wishes her daddy was there with them, but at least they can keep this part of him with them. Albert visits his late wife, and does what he knows how to do best by fixing the crypt up a bit.

All throughout the premiere, we go back and forth between the good and the bad, showing that while things are still hard for many, for others – contrary to what Sofia says above – it IS getting a little bit better. And that balance is exemplified by our two new regular characters.

On one side is newcomer Nelson Hidalgo, cousin to Sonny’s bouncer-turned-contractor pal Arnie. He has money, he has contacts, and he has an eye on making a lot of money rebuilding this city – and, what’s more, he seems to genuinely enjoy the place. Jon Seda is an actor I’ve often found problematic – his character’s introduction on “Homicide” was roughly the point at which I gave up on that show being consistently great again – but I thought he was great in “The Pacific” last year, and I found myself surprisingly enjoying him here. Nelson’s a slick operator who knows how to work a room, but there seems something genuine underneath the hustler. He talks up his Catholic background to bond with the big local developer, but he likes the guy. He dives into the local cuisine in a way Arnie has never bothered to, and starts dancing to the jukebox at LaDonna’s place just because he digs the music. (And also, I suppose, because it never hurts to ingratiate yourself with a local barkeep.) So far, Nelson represents the possibilities for the city, the chance to clear away the storm’s wreckage and start building something.

On the other side is Lt. Colson, who appeared briefly late last season. In addition to his ongoing professional friendship with Toni, Colson is here to give us a window on the explosion of crime that began not long after the events depicted last season. One of the few things the city had going for it in the months immediately after the storm is that the criminals were either scattered elsewhere, or too beaten up by Katrina to bother doing anything major. At this point in time, though, things are getting ugly, and it’s all Colson can do just to put a good face on the crime wave when the New York Times keeps calling for juicy new anecdotes.

And in between those two extremes are our returning characters.

Things are very good for Annie and Davis, who have managed to bring out the best in each other: Annie’s more confident in herself and her performing abilities, Davis considerate enough for someone’s feelings that he actually bothers to clean up before she comes back from her tour with the subdudes. (He and Janette were never exactly boyfriend and girlfriend, but still, you get the sense that he never cleaned for her.) And Annie is able to perform onstage with Sonny without totally freaking out afterwards.

Things seem at least promising for Antoine and Desiree, who are exploring the idea of getting a house in the city after so much time exiled on the outskirts. (They’re also talking marriage, though Desiree’s unsurprisingly much more gung-ho on that topic than Antoine.) And Antoine is expressing interest in starting his own band.

Delmond has a new album out and is back in New York, and Janette remains there, learning the ropes of the local restaurant scene and adjusting to both the changed atmosphere and to being a little fish in a big pond. And old man Poke finally returns to reclaim his bar, not even bothering to acknowledge all the free repair work Albert did (love that his first line to him was actually “Where the fuck’s my sign?”), and sending Albert back to the ruined house he’s barely even touched since he returned to the city.

And Toni and Sofia? They’re just getting through the day. Toni has an assistant, finally, and Sofia has the outlet of following in her dad’s footsteps on YouTube, but it’s a struggle for them, individually and together.

Unsurprisingly – for both a David Simon show in general and this show in particular – not much happens plot-wise in this premiere. It’s all about catching up with where everyone is seven months later, and getting to know the new guys, and laying some of the groundwork for what this year will be about. Like Robert, the novice trumpet player whose appearance bookends the episode, the show is still warming up, still figuring out how to make this work. But it’s going to start cooking soon, and the meantime, it’s still very nice to be back in “Treme.”

Some other thoughts:

• It goes without saying that the music is great: John Boutte’s voice, Lucia Micarelli’s violin solos, all of it. And for those of you who feel the performance scenes are too short, this year the show is going to release one extended performance video per episode on iTunes, starting with “From the Corner to the Block” by Galactic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with Juvenile. I’ve seen that video and a few others (all of them with intros by Davis and his fellow DJs); they’re awesome.

• You’ll note that Eric Overmyer, who wrote the script, shared a story credit with celebrity chef/foodie/wit Bourdain. Overmyer and Simon have actually placed Bourdain in charge of writing most of the material about Janette’s experience cooking in those big restaurants. I asked Simon if Bourdain was just contributing notes and anecdotes that the other writers shape into script material, and Simon said no, Bourdain is actually writing a lot of this stuff. The material about the scary but talented head chef at Janette’s restaurant felt very much like something out of Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” I also love the look of that kitchen: so big and gleaming and bright, looks so unlike any of the places we’ve seen in the New Orleans restaurants.

• Janette’s expat storyline also means she has to get some new friends to interact with, at work and at home, and gives Simon an excuse to again employ James Ransone (Ziggy on “The Wire,” Cpl. Person in “Generation Kill”) as one of her pot-smoking roommates.

• Also starting off the season in New York (as he did last year) is Delmond, but it’s a Delmond who’s been transformed by his experiences with his father in season one, and who finds himself passionately defending New Orleans traditions when he gets trapped in conversational hell with a pair of pretentious New York music fans. Some of that’s just the insider-vs-outsider thing – “I get to say that! They don’t!” – but I don’t know that he’d have gotten so heated up a year before.

• Some things in “Treme” change, and some stay very much the same, like LaDonna and Larry still arguing about Baton Rouge, the bar, etc.

• As always, if you want to know more about all the local details, identities of the musicians, etc., I cannot recommend Dave Walker’s weekly annotations at his NOLA blog highly enough. Dave’s the man on the scene, and if you didn’t bookmark him last season, time to rectify that. Here’s the direct link to tonight’s explainer.

What did everybody else think?

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