'Treme': Desperately Seeking a Story Line

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Five episodes in, Treme is still waiting for a story. The downside of following so many distinct side plots is that we miss a central, unifying objective (such as the cops vs. crooks narrative that drove The Wire). Treme's villain—Hurricane Katrina—is both inhuman and intangible, which leaves fuzziness around the question of who or what we should be rooting for. The ambiguity of "Rebuilding the City" isn't enough. It's possible this is intentional, mirroring the uncertainty of New Orleans's displaced and poorly-served residents, but if so, such artistry comes at the expense of storytelling. Is the show entertaining? Absolutely. But something's missing.

That said, I loved this episode—as we spend more time with these characters, their temperaments and humor and frustrations are becoming more complex, and consequently more believable. In short, we're starting to know them, and form our own loyalties and attachments as viewers.

Last night, this was made clear in the case of the hapless Davis McAlary, played expertly by Steve Zahn. Davis, still fired up from his run-ins with the law and potholes last week, is contemplating a run for city council, and enlists a host of musicians to help him record a four-song "epistle against all that is unholy and corrupt in the government of New Orleans." But his passion doesn't extend to actually wanting to effect change. "If nominated I'll pretend to run, and if I'm elected I won't even pretend to serve," he tells his buddies, in a scene that included a cameo by Davis Rogan, the real-life musician on whom Zahn's character is based.

One has to wonder how Rogan feels about the buffoon that Treme's Davis has become. Among the Treme viewers I know, it seems Davis is pretty universally reviled. As Aymar Jean Christian wrote on Racialicious, "Davis is self-important and self-righteous, so wrapped up in his own perception of authenticity—of community, music, politics—that he can't let people in."

But even Davis's devotion to the "real New Orleans" and his place in it is tenuous. In a bar following the Second Line parade, Davis oversteps his own boundaries, justifying his use of the word nigger to an angry black patron with the feeble, "It's OK man, I live in this neighborhood." Does this guy actually think he's black? Or that it doesn't matter if he isn't? The situation escalates to the point that Davis's drinking buddies are actually shhhhhh-ing him, but Davis won't back down, and takes a violent punch to the jaw. He wakes up on the sofa of those same gay neighbors he berated last week for their lack of authenticity, who found him passed out in the street. "You guys brought me in?" he asks incredulously.

The episode also gave us some movement on LaDonna and Toni's search for Daymo. An arresting dream sequence at the start underscored LaDonna's fears about Daymo's fate, and Toni is suing the city corrections office to acknowledge responsibility for Daymo's whereabouts. Later, she traces Daymo to Jeanette's restaurant, where he had worked as a dishwasher, but hasn't been seen since the storm.

The incompetence of the New Orleans law enforcement after the storm is fleshed out, but only barely. After Antoine discovers that the cops who beat him up sold his trombone to a pawn shop, Toni confronts the sergeant, who pleads that his force is tired, angry, and victimized. "No homes, no money, families out of town," he protests. And the Second Line shooting was a sign that things are going to get worse. The crime is coming back and we ain't ready, but you want to talk about a trombone?"

There is a sense of foreboding throughout the episode—as Creighton warns, the next hurricane season is only a few months away, but the federal government has done little to keep Bush's promises to rebuild. You were "lightly joking about the high times you spent in our city as youth while bodies floated in our streets," he accuses the president in another one of his YouTube rants. The feeling is most pronounced in the aftermath of the Second Line, when, after several minutes watching the utter release and joy of the dancers and musicians in "ReNew Orleans" shirts—the moment in which Davina sees and reunites wordlessly with a lost friend was among the most moving of the entire series thus far—we are jarred by the scene by shots and screams. It's brutal, and effective.

Briefly, here's what else happened. Antoine finds a benefactor in a wealthy Japanese jazz aficionado whose organization is providing musicians with money for new instruments. The Japanese man is one of the first sympathetic outsiders we've seen, but perhaps he is only redeemed because of his passion of the music. After the storm, "every time I listen to those records, I cry," he tells Antoine. Albert's trying to light a fire under City Hall to open up the projects so that more of his gang can come home. And Sonny and Annie play host to a bouncer friend that Sonny picked up in Houston, but after watching him spot Sonny cash for dope, Annie sends the visitor packing.

Music worth watching for: Antoine's solo of thanks on his new trombone in the dark quad of his apartment complex is beautiful, made more so as he coaxes a watching Desiree's stormy countenance into a sympathetic smile, and moves the Japanese visitor to tears. And as childish as Davis's city council run may be, he enlists top talent, including Kermit Ruffins and the real Davis Rogan to play on his campaign tracks, recording Smiley Lewis's "Shame Shame Shame" with reworked lyrics:

Shame, shame, shame on you now W
What you have done
Leaving us on the ropes
We were down and out
You flew over
Never did come down
... New Orleans without poor people ain't New Orleans,
It's the people without a pot to piss in who keep the beat, blow the horns

What we're wondering: As happy as I am for Jeanette to earn some attention and praise for her restaurant, the bit in which Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, David Chang, and Wylie Dusfresne drop by for a meal felt oddly out of place, and I felt jarred out of Treme's world into some strange hybrid of Top Chef and Entourage, where celebrities show up just to show up. With a few exceptions (Kermit Ruffins, Elvis Costello), the show's frequent use of big names doesn't really add to the narrative beyond saying, "oh these people were all in New Orleans too." Anyone disagree?

It was, however, lovely to see Jeanette and Jacque cooking with such care, not even speaking, in a scene that infused New Orleans cooking with the same affection given to the music elsewhere in the show. Sweetbreads and crawfish over grits, anyone?

Past Treme responses:

'Treme': Tough Times in Post-Katrina New Orleans

This Week's 'Treme': The Cliches Come Marching In

This Week on 'Treme': Well, That Got Real

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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