‘Treme’ – ‘All On a Mardi Gras Day’: Beignet, done that

Senior Television Writer
06.06.10 77 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Treme” coming up just as soon as I anticipate munchies…

“It’s Mardi Gras. Go and have your fun.” -Desiree

Good art has the power to transport you – to make you feel like you’ve been to a place you’ve never visited, or like you understand a person you’ve never met. Going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras is one of those trips my wife and I talked about forever but never managed to pull off. I still want to do it one day, but for now, I’m sated by the time I spent watching “All on a Mardi Gras Day.”

I’ll leave it to the New Orleans residents (and to those who’ve traveled there to attend) to assess how accurately the episode captured the city’s big day. But from my outsider’s perspective I felt like I was allowed to witness the depth and breadth of Mardi Gras experiences available to many, whether the unapolgetic hedonsim of Sonny’s “day apart” or the more innocent tour of different Mardi Gras venues provided by Davis and Annie, or the tearful expatriate just happy to be back in his hometown for the event, or Antoine and Ladonna letting the spirit of the day (and the weight of the secret Ladonna keeps through it) nudge them into having a go for old time’s sake.

Early in the episode, Delmond disappoints Lula when he tries to argue that the city would be better off without the holiday if it meant devoting all the time and energy spent on it towards rebuilding. By the end, though, he’s had such a good time, and gotten a first-hand reminder of the thrill of seeing the Mardi Gras Indians, that he can sincerely tell the crowd at his gig that he thinks “New Orleans might just make it.” And after the day we’ve witnessed, can you blame him?

Of course, not everyone feels that way. Creighton the sourpuss lets his writer’s block mix in with his sense of ownership over the city’s culture and lead him to despair over the sights and sounds of a diminished Carnival. I found it a very nice touch when Toni pointed out that she’s a native and Creighton is not, and that certain aspects of the local culture take on a different meaning when you grow up with them, as opposed to when you adopt them. Creighton, like Sonny, has a tendency to overcompensate because he’s a transplant – whereas native Davis, who often has much in common with Creighton, has himself a fine old time even as he’s acknowledging that this year is different – and at times he can be almost as unpleasant a character as Sonny.

Well, no. No one on this show – and perhaps in the entire David Simon ouevre – is as unpleasant as Sonny. The great thing about “The Wire” was that every character had some kind of redeeming and/or humanizing feature. Valchek was a myopic, petty bully, for instance, but he knew how to get things done. Sonny, on the other hand, is loathsome in pretty much every way. Even the scenes in this one with the man who claims Sonny rescued him during the storm – which matches up with the stories Sonny was telling back in the second episode – don’t feel particularly redemptive, because Sonny clearly has no idea who the guy is. So either he’s been telling someone else’s story (and has now been confused with the original teller), or (more likely) he doesn’t remember, either because he was high then or high now. If Sonny did go out on a boat to help people, it wasn’t because he cares about other human beings, but because it was the sort of adventure that fits the persona he’s constructed for himself. While his scenes offered up a side of Mardi Gras we weren’t going to get from any other character, I still find anything with him a chore to get through, and in fact dislike him so much that I was hoping Davis and Annie would have sex – even though Davis was making an effort to be a gentleman for the sake of both Annie and Janette – just so she would get to experience the love of a better man.

(Congratulations, Sonny. Davis is a more admirable person than you are.)

Chaste though it was, Davis and Annie’s day together was extremely charming, as were our glimpses of Janette the Mardi Gras fairy wandering around on her own, increasingly drunk, trying to turn a car into a taxi cab. (She can wish and wave her wand all she wants, but that car won’t become a cab anymore than her restaurant will become solvent, her home become fixed or the city become whole once more.) I reckon I would have watched an entire hour that just followed Janette around in that costume, so adorable was Kim Dickens. (And “adorable” is not usually an attribute you associate with the characters she plays.)

For that matter, I could have watched an entire episode that was just Antoine following the grief-stricken Ladonna around (and Khandi Alexander was outstanding at showing us the weight Ladonna was carrying and trying to keep from others, even the prosecutor who kept fighting Toni in court). And I absolutely would have watched an hour that was just Antoine and Mr. Toyama catching up, debating jazz trivia and toasting to fallen idols. I think it says something about “Treme” that the most choked up I have gotten at any point in these episodes – more than when Albert got a look at his house, or when Ladonna got her look at Daymo’s body – was when Antoine told Toyama the story of regifting the new trombone to his teacher, and then to his teacher’s grandson, and Toyama smiled and said that pleased him very much. I had been so afraid that the truth would create another ugly moment between the two men – that Toyama would be upset that his expensive gift would be so  cavalierly given away – and was relieved that it was not only not a problem, but a reason for these two men from different parts of the world to better understand each other.

“Treme” is a show about people, and for the most part (Sonny excepted), it does a beautiful job at breathing life and humanity into them. But it’s also a show about a city and its culture, and the fear that the flood may have destroyed that culture right along with all the houses. For Antoine to be in the company of a man who knows of, and mourns, the loss of his beloved teacher – and who understands and is even pleased with the idea of the family tradition – is as comforting and appropriate a moment as he can have in the run-up to Mardi Gras. The city is diminished, the parades smaller, but people are still coming to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, they still know, and they still care. And that matters.

Some other thoughts:

  • The season’s early episodes seemed to be setting us up for Albert’s tribe to make their triumphant return during Carnival. Instead, payback for his political protest keeps him in jail through the holiday. But with two episodes to go and all the mentions of the impending St. Joseph’s celebration, I wouldn’t count out seeing the Big Chief don his feathers before the season is out.
  • Annie and Davis don’t step out on Sonny and Janette with each other (even though Sonny is off having sex with another woman, while it’s arguable that Davis would be cheating, since Janette considers them friends with benefits), but Antoine and Ladonna’s significant others do get betrayed here. I feel particularly bad for Desiree, since she encouraged her man to stay out and have a good time, while simultaneously making it clear what the paramters of that good time should be.
  • For the most part, “Treme” has tried to stick with the same visual template and music rules that “The Wire” followed, but because it’s a show about music, it seems more flexible on the latter. So while the show will often try to have a practical source for any songs on the soundtrack (ala Creighton turning on Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras” before the montage of everyone doing just that), there are other times (like the opening montage’s use of Aaron Neville’s “Struttin’ on Sunday”) where they don’t bother.
  • Eric Overmyer’s script throws in a couple of nods to other movies and shows about New Orleans, one of them fairly self-referential. When Creighton is pointing out local landmarks to Sofia, he points out a location where they filmed scenes for “The Big Easy” – a movie that co-starred John Goodman. Later, Overmyer gets in a dig at “K-Ville” with the scene where Annie uses the phrase “gumbo party” – which was a much-derided line from that show’s pilot episode – and Davis cringes and says, “Yeah, we don’t really call it that here.”
  • Dave Walker, by the way, was the one who first explained the wrongness of “gumbo party” to me, and as always, I highly recommend you check out his blog for his annotated look at this episode.
  • Hard to choose the more hilarious Davis moment in this one: Davis responding to Janette’s talk of a day spent doing nothing with “Pretty much a normal day for me,” or Davis pausing on his way out the door to grab the judge’s Get Out of Jail Free card, just in case. (And I know some people last week speculated that he just took the card to use as part of the ongoing campaign, but it would appear based on that gag that he took it because he knows he’ll need it at some point, given the life he leads.)
  • And one more Davis note, while we’re at it: the scene with his parents offered not only a glimpse of how the city’s white aristocracy behaves on the day, but helped soften the characterization of Mrs. McAlary. After all, if she can love the Zulus, she can’t be all bad, can she?

What did everybody else think?

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