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'Treme': A junkie Dutchman, a lovely violinist, and a few red flags

May 2, 2010 |  9:38 pm

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It's time to cop to select free-floating concerns about "Treme" as we conclude hour No. 4 of the 10-episode HBO series' first season, thoughts that started popping up within the first 15 minutes of episode one. After all, the show has already been renewed for a second season. What do we have to lose?

Herewith, a few tiny annoyances that suggest a show still trying to find its groove.

First:

If the goal of good dialogue is to erase any evidence of the real-life writer inking the words, "Treme," in these first four episodes, occasionally struggles. Yes, John Goodman's character Creighton Bernette is based on a real-life blogger, the late Ashley Morris, and David Simon has said that some of Bernette's dialogue is taken verbatim from posts Morris wrote in the months following Hurricane Katrina.

But Bernette wears the righteous indignation thing like it's an eye patch, and I don't know whether it's in the writing or in Goodman's execution, but it's a little much. Despite lauded crime writer-turned-script king-turned-producer George Pelecanos (who wrote extensively for "The Wire") crafting the teleplay and co-writing this episode (with Simon), some of Bernette's lines in the show's initial hours are bang-you-over-the-head obvious, the kind that Goodman struggles to lift off of the page and into (fictional) reality.

Too often, you can hear the writer's voice in his characters, whether it's something simple like Chief Lambreaux expressing bafflement that perfectly solid housing complexes would be shuttered while people were looking for shelter, or street-corner pianist Sonny complaining about having to play "When the Saints Go Marching In." Anytime Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary talks about music, the writers strive to squeeze enough information into the dialogue to prove that the series knows the history. They're trying too hard.  

Second:

In 2005 there was a lot of music being played in New Orleans, and not all of it was New Orleans music. In fact, it'd be fair to speculate that a lot of people lost a lot of CDs and LPs in the flood, and that their collections of classic New Orleans music wasn't high on the list of things to replace.

Which is a roundabout way of saying: Sometimes the show goes overboard. Yes, when trombonist Antoine Batiste is up onstage, or when Chief Lambreaux is popping the tambourine with his Indians, New Orleans sounds are necessary. But when Batiste is in LaDonna's bar and trying (again) to get into her pants, the jukebox should be playing some Tyrone Davis or R. Kelly. Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" was as ubiquitous in New Orleans in '05 as it was in New York or Los Angeles, as was, alas, Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved." And as someone who was living in close proximity to the dirty south at the time, the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)" was fricking everywhere.

Those complaints out in the open, here are a few random observations:

I don't care at all about Dutch piano player/street musician Sonny. But maybe that's just because I'm jealous.

It is interesting in this episode and last to witness the first sprouting of nostalgia for the early days of YouTube. In late 2005, the site was only 10 months old. It's first mention in "Treme" is in episode three, when Creighton's daughter uploads a video to the site and her parents watch it with a combination of wonder and concern. Then, to realize that this moment was a portent, and that the Tulane professor and budding blogger Bernette was going to sit in front of his computer in a robe in the next episode and rant to the camera, was to remember the empowering feeling of early YouTube.

This is the first episode in which Antoine Batiste doesn't get any action with a woman. Maybe it's the stitched up lip. Overall, a rough hour for the bone player.

One funny holdover joke during this episode is the reference to Sonny as being from "Hamsterdam." The character, who seems to be unfolding as the requisite junkie musician, is a young Dutch expat who, when palling around with his friends on his way to Houston to sit in with horn player Glen David Andrews, jokes about being from "Hamsterdam." The reference is a carry-over from an early episode of "The Wire" called "Hamsterdam" that George Pelacanos also wrote.

And, finally: Steve Earle, who made a cameo (with his son, Justin Townes Earle) as a musician playing with the lovely Annie, needs a haircut. That tuft of long bangs that sits just above his forehead is a total fashion No, and someone needs to tell him. Embrace  your inner bald man, Mr. Earle. Your songwriting eclipses your hair when it comes to your achievements in life. Let it go.

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Michiel Huisman as Sonny and Lucia Micarelli as Annie in "Treme." Credit: Paul Schirald / HBO

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