'Treme': Desperately Seeking a Story Line

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HBO


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?"

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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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