July 3, 2012

“Let Pops Tell It”: A July 4 Celebration of David Simon’s “Treme”

Season 2 of HBO’s Treme (pronounced Trem-ay) ends, movingly, with sometime DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) back at the WWOZ microphone from which he was unceremoniously separated in Season 1. If you’ve watched both seasons of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s extraordinary series about the agony and ecstasy of post-Katrina New Orleans, you will feel the moment with Davis, his face in the shadows as he prepares to put on a CD. What follows may be the calmest, most thoughtful utterance of his life as we know it. “Anyway, New Orleans,” he says, softly, as if the whole city were in the booth with him or bedded down for the night nearby, “we’re all still here, ain’t we? A few more home every day. And even if it isn’t as it should be, even if they make it hard, where else would we go? who else would have us? … Let Pops tell it.”

Pops is, of course, New Orleans’s most illustrious citizen ever, Louis Armstrong, born July 4, 1900, his birth date a glorious fabrication he maintained right up to the day he died. People inclined to scold me for claiming Independence Day as Satchmo’s true 112th birthday can point to Terry Teachout’s biography Pops (Houghton Mifflin 2009), which declares that, according to the baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901. So, who do you trust, an old ledger, a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, or the jazz god performing “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” for the city of his birth as Davis slides home the CD? The dream that began on July 4, 1900, didn’t end on July 6, 1971. Those who doubt Satchmo’s song of himself should listen to Walt Whitman’s: “I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and/am not contain’d between my hat and boots,” and “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Recorded when Louis and the 20th century were 31, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was in his band’s repertoire as he returned to New Orleans that same year for the first time since leaving his hometown in 1919. Eight marching bands met his train, the crowds closed down Canal Street, and that night when he played at the Suburban Gardens, WSMB was broadcasting live from the club. After the white announcer refused to announce him, Louis took over, later claiming it was “the first time a Negro spoke on the radio down there. For that night and the rest of the gig I did my own radio announcing.”

Though Davis McAlary most likely didn’t know that Louis Armstrong had once played the DJ on a New Orleans radio station, he couldn’t have picked a better song. While John Boutté’s lively theme music for Treme serves the purpose well, Armstrong’s performance of the Depression era hit captures the spirit of Season 2, all its ups and downs and “cloudy and gray … king for a day” moments. As the last note of Louis’s eloquent solo fades and with it the last of a series of New Orleans views (the cluttered makeshift memorial for a busker, a derelict house, a swamp with the skyline in the background), Davis sits speechless — a rare state for him. “Sorry for the dead air,” he says when he can find words. “But that one got me.”

Me, too.

As Louis Sings

During the four minutes the music’s riding the air waves, there are glimpses of some of the key characters in Treme doing what they do, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, the irrepressible trombonist, formerly of Simon’s The Wire); his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander, formerly of Simon’s The Corner), back to her usual fine and foxy bartending self after a near catastrophic trauma; a couple of should-be could-be lovers, Terry the police lieutenant (David Morse) crossing paths with Toni the widowed lawyer (Melissa Leo, a.k.a. Kay Howard to fans of Simon’s Homicide), who snubs him due to a misunderstanding that Season 3 will have to clear up.

As Louis sings, “Whenever skies are cloudy and gray,” we see one of Treme’s stellar female characters, chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, late of Deadwood) who is inspecting a kitchen she just might be commandeering if and when she returns to New Orleans from the Big Apple. The downside of the song seems especially fitting for Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda, another Homicide alum), the wheeling and dealing Dallas businessman who comes to town to make big money and cultivate the powers that be, including the politician whose downfall buries Hidalgo’s schemes and dreams. To real-life citizens of New Orleans, Seda’s character is a hateful reminder of the carpetbaggers who exploited the Katrina aftermath (“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to beat the living snot out of that guy,” says one blogger). But Treme’s many virtues preclude one-dimensional characters, certainly among the principals. Nelson’s cocksure ambience has a boyish charm (otherwise he wouldn’t be operating as effectively as he seems to be) and he’s enjoying himself right up to the moment he’s shown gazing unhappily at a vacant lot as Louis sings the chorus of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.”

John Goodman

It makes sense that a series about the character of a city would feature vivid characters, some with purely surface impact like the celebrity chefs and celebrity musicians who appear in cameos, while the ones who carry the weight have depths and dark places and rough edges, none more so than Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) as a Tulane professor harrowed and half-mad in the desolate aftermath of Katrina. Being one of the most celebrated character actors on the planet, Goodman gave the show instant media clout as he loomed, brooding and raging, above the music and mayhem of Season 1. In explaining Creighton’s fate to the Times-Picayune’s Dave Walker, David Simon points out that the suicide rate was quadruple the national average for a period after the storm: “What I found on The Wire was, if you’re not willing to kill your babies — to kill your beautiful babies, the characters you create and nurture — and be willing to say they serve the story in both life and death, any show becomes precious and you know that the story is not really speaking to the human condition.”

Davis McAlary’s Angel

You can tell something about the quality of Treme by following the ups and downs of the character granted the privilege of quietly closing out Season 2. Inspired by a real-life New Orleans “wiseass savant” named Davis Rogan, Davis McAlary has provoked as much online vitriol as the savvy opportunist Nelson Hidalgo. Davis is capital-E enthusiasm carried to an often intolerable extreme. Some may see him as a retro nightmare of an “off-the-pigs” hippie radical, others as a gag-me-with-a-spoon New Orleans version of Michael Moore. He’s loud, arrogant, and so in-your-face that whenever you begin to like him, he embarrasses you, the way certain one-track-minded motor mouths tend to do in “real life.” The very qualities that should redeem him — his passion for New Orleans, heart and soul, and its music (he more than any other character qualifies as the cheerleader for Treme) — lead him again and again off the deep end; thus the “Why I Hate Steve Zahn’s Davis” bloggers.

All that said, most reasonably understanding viewers will feel a nagging affection for the Davis character by the end of Season 2. Because of his unguarded effusiveness, his passionate devotion to his musical dreams, the whole world seems to be watching when his “castles … tumble,” so that when he loses his place in his own band or is outshone by a more compelling performer, you can’t help feeling for him as he swallows the disappointment (“that’s fate after all”). But what gives him definitive credibility is the affection of the street violinist Annie Talarico (Lucia Micarelli). Watch Annie’s face light up or go dreaming with eyes closed when she’s playing or smiling or simply being who she beautifully is, and you can’t help feeling that she’s Treme’s angel, the soul of the series, and one of its finest musicians. Not only does she move in with Davis, she enjoys him, roots for him, is on his side and in his bed, a combination sister, friend, and lover.

If Annie is Treme’s angel, Melissa Leo’s pro bono civil rights lawyer Toni might be called its conscience, if she weren’t so busy dealing with her grieving teen-age daughter, Sofia, probably the most wholly touching and vulnerable character in the series. Played by 18-year-old India Ennenga as if she were four years younger, Sofia doesn’t discover the truth about her father’s death (that he took his own life) until halfway through the second season, which further estranges her from Toni, who hadn’t had the heart to tell her. Sofia resembles one of Fellini’s angelic presences, like the girl smiling at Marcello near the end of La Dolce Vita. Her anger, confusion, and sad, wounded beauty haunt the second season. Though she gets drunk and high (and is arrested), the heartsick sadness abides. Not until her mother breaks down when despairingly attempting and failing to explain the inexplicable suicide (a hugely courageous, giving moment for Melissa Leo) does Sofia open up to her.

The Three Davids

In the post-millennium cable reign of the three Davids — Chase of The Sopranos, Milch of Deadwood, and Simon of The WireTreme puts Simon in a class by himself, at least until we see what David Milch does with, say, William Faulkner’s Light in August, now that he’s signed a contract with HBO and the Faulkner estate that will allow him to adapt whichever of the author’s stories or novels he chooses.


Both seasons of Treme are available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library and Netflix, where there is a long waiting list for Season 2. The most informative websites on Treme belong to Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger and Dave Walker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.