Welcome back to another season of Treme coverage here at The A.V. Club. Last season, Scott Tobias was your tour guide to the show’s post-Katrina New Orleans, with its sprawling cast of characters and (sometimes) overlapping storylines. This year, I’ll play that role, though don’t be surprised if Scott steps in on some weeks. I’m happy to do it. Where I feel like the first season of Treme came burdened with the expectations that it live up to co-creator David Simon’s The Wire, those of us who have stuck around now know it’s a different sort of show. Not drastically different, mind you. It has the same expansiveness and much the same texture. But Treme’s its own thing.
For starters, there’s even less hand-holding. The Wire didn’t go out of its way to explain the culture of Baltimore—from the docks to city hall—but it gave viewers a familiar throughline in the form of season-spanning police cases. Treme’s never had that. It’s all expansiveness and texture. It’s the themes of the show, and the shared setting that serves as a stage to those themes, that makes it feel cohesive. To me, that’s enough. Add in compelling characters, an unmatched sense of place, and a broad selection of New Orleans music, and it’s more than enough.
Picking up 14 months after Katrina on All Saints Day, and thus, about seven months after the last episode of the first season, “Accentuate The Positive” wastes no time setting up what the season will be about. It opens on the image of a boy trumpeter named Robert as he plugs through notes that, in the right combination, might someday sound like “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Sent marching by his mom, he walks past graves and shots of familiar Treme characters mourning the dead, trying to summon up a song forever linked to the city (and one that, though a cliché in the wrong hands, can still sound thrilling in the right ones.) Where Treme’s first season was all about how its New Orleanians survived—or didn’t—in the aftermath of a crisis, season two is about their attempts to rebuild.
That’s bound to be no small task. Borrowing a page from her late father, Sofia takes to YouTube to complain about the state of things, noting that after “14 months, it ought to be getting easier here” but instead “Everyone in this freaking city is on painkillers or booze.” In advance of this season, the New Orelans Times-Picayune’s TV critic Dave Walker—whose weekly “Treme Explained” column is a must-read—published a preview piece headlined “For season two, Treme moves into months where headlines grew grim” that put 2006-2007 into local context. Specifically, he mentions that the return of violent crime and other troubling developments from that period will no doubt supply enough material to quiet those unhappy with the pace and subject of the first season, even if those who lived through them didn’t view them as an “overdue injection of narrative drive.”
Sofia’s not the only one having trouble. Albert, for starters, gets thrown out of the place he—and others—have called home since returning to New Orleans and is looking at a financial situation where he can’t make ends meet. Ladonna’s still torn between her family back in Baton Rouge and the bar that serves as the other focal point in her life. Antoine continues to gig—including a set with Bonerama—and ponder a future, including a possible move to the Ninth Ward’s new Musicians’ Village and marriage to his longtime girlfriend. Still car-less and with no steady paycheck, he’s looking at an uncertain future, too.
“Accentuate The Positive” does little more than set these plots in motion, but, in the expected style, the script (by series co-creator Eric Overmeyer from a story by Overmeyer and new writing staff addition Anthony Bourdain) fills out the details lovingly. Antoine’s consideration of all the women he could have had if he’d only chosen the trumpet and the way he lets it flow into an acceptance of the life he chose is more than just an amusing aside; it reminds us of who this guy is: wry, profane, witty, and more than a little restless. He might just find a way to thrive in uncertain times.
He hasn’t, however, made thriving in the midst of uncertainty a goal unto itself, unlike Nelson Hidalgo, the newcomer—to the show and the city—played by Jon Seda. A contractor from Houston, he arrives with two professed desires: to rebuild the city and make money in the process. In his mind, these are both admirable goals, and he might not be wrong. But there’s more than a whiff of carbetbaggery to his approach and more than a little suspicion behind the amusement with which locals like Ladonna and the woman who serves him his first, mammoth muffuletta—well, her own variation on the mammoth sandwich, anyway—view his arriviste’s enthusiasm for all things New Orleans. The son of a large Catholic family, will he bring a moral code to his New Orleans tenure? Who knows? Right now, he’s hard to read behind his blinding smile.
Seda, India Ennega (who plays Sofia), and David Morse (who reprises his role as police lieutenant Terry Colson) have all been added to the regular cast, and all should prove welcome additions. It would be tempting to conclude Colson’s been added to give the show a little Wire-like police action, if Morse didn’t bring so much depth to the character, while saying so little, and if crime and the actions of the New Orleans police weren’t so central to this chapter of New Orleans’ story. Colson’s scene with Toni as she makes inquiries into one of her lawsuits against the city, gives the episode a particular highlight, a meeting of two people made sympathetic to one another by a shared desire to do what’s right, even if circumstances have made them reluctant antagonists.
The episode has to do a lot of stage-setting, but it also fills in some narrative gaps. In the months between seasons, Davis has somehow kept his DJ job (even if he plays too much bounce for his boss’s taste), and Davis and Annie have become an established couple. I can’t help but think these two developments are related. Davis even cleans his house in anticipation of Annie’s return home from touring with The Subdudes, a satisfying jaunt that gives her some time in the spotlight and leaves her a little more open to the gumbo-like musical possibilities of New Orleans (as also evidenced by a set in which Juvenile jams with Galactic and the Dirty Dozen Brass band toward the end of the episode). Sonny—and I can’t help but think this is related to Davis and Annie’s coupledom, too—has descended into junkie-hood, living in squalor with other addicts. He can be civil, if pointedly so, to Davis and even play with Annie as she sits in with singer (and Treme theme song-provider) John Boutté. But he’s not a man at peace.
Finally, there are the exiles: Del continues his life as a New York jazz musician, and Janette tries to make a living under the harsh instruction of a chef whose brilliance and insanity are equally inarguable. The characters give “Accentuate” both its best and worst moments. Del’s confrontation with some eggheaded New Yorkers who have opinions about New Orleans—its future, its music, the ridiculous notion that the trad jazz of Preservation Hall is equivalent to a minstrel show—lays out some crucial themes for both Del and the show by highlighting the difficulty of preserving tradition while still trying to move forward, but it feels scripted in a way the rest of the episode doesn't, however convincingly Rob Brown plays his character’s reaction. Meanwhile, Janette’s travails, which I think can safely be traced to Bourdain’s experiences in the restaurant world, are made up of the many maddening details of trying to please an insatiable master whom you respect and despise in equal measure. It feels like a smaller story than Del’s but one the show realizes much more fully.
Both Del and Janette are trying to figure out what comes next. Though miles away, they share that with those left in New Orleans. Whether home or away, nobody’s having an easy time of it. The same young trumpeter who opened the episode reappears to close it out, watching Colson hunch over a body before being sent home. Minutes before, an older man gives him some advice after hearing him struggle with his playing: “It gets easier.” The kid’s reply, “I hope so.”
- That’s the terrific, young, New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott playing with Del. Check out his 2010 album Yesterday You Said Tomorrow if you’re curious.
- Toni’s told Sofia that her father’s death was accidental. Does she plan to keep that story going? Does she think Sofia believes her?
- Of the regular characters, Sonny still seems the most disposable. Nothing against Michiel Huisman, who’s fine in the role, but I’m not sure what else he has to contribute to the series. Maybe subsequent episodes will change my mind.
- “I want peppy lobsters.”
- I’ve had some interesting conversations about this show with other fans and critics, some of whom like Treme while remaining indifferent to the music. I’d love to know how you feel. I don’t think anyone would argue that music’s not essential to the world of the show. But do you enjoy it? (I’m in the pro-enjoyment camp and look forward to hearing new sounds each week.) Also, if you want to hear "I Got That Gin In My System" by sissy bounce star Big Freedia, here you go:
- Less a stray observation than a summation: I think this episode gets the second season off to a mostly fine start. The on-the-noseness of that New York conversation aside, it feels as unrushed as the first season, but with an added sense of urgency. We know these characters enough to worry about them now and as worrisome a place as Treme’s New Orleans is, I’m glad for the chance to revisit it.