Category: Randall Roberts

'Treme': A flashback in the season finale opens a window to Season 2

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In Steve Earle's cameo during this week's season finale of "Treme," he's playing a guitar that has "This machine floats" written on its body.  It's a clever reference to the inscription that Woody Guthrie had on his guitar, which read, "This machine kills fascists."

Earle's message is a wonderful metaphor for the way in which "Treme" over the course of the 10 episodes in Season 1 has illustrated the resiliency of its characters. Countless lives were lost to Hurricane Katrina; billions of dollars worth of property was destroyed; families were torn apart. But music exists above the water, moves around the city in that secret place that can't be touched by the physical world. Yes, instruments can be destroyed, and players can drown. The music itself, however, floats.

Throughout the first season, we've been treated to some memorable musical moments, and none of them were greater than watching genius singer Irma Thomas sidle up to a poker table and start playing cards with Antoine Batiste. After winning most of the money, the trombonist got paid from a session with Allan Toussaint, Thomas, best known for her rendition of Toussaint's lovelorn ballad, "It's Raining," gets onstage to do a fantastic take on "Time Is On My Side," which she first recorded in 1964 (the Rolling Stones' version is perhaps the best known).  

Lloyd Price won some money from Batiste too. Price performed a rendition of the classic murder ballad, "Stagger Lee," with which he had a hit in 1959.

Why all the music talk this time around? Well, other than because I stated my opinion on the first season last week and angered a lot of fans of the show, this particular episode was particularly strong music- wise. Plus, what do I know about building narrative? I'm the pop music editor at The Times, not a television critic (although I completely stand by the post).

All that said, this finale opened a window into what's going to happen next season, and it bodes very, very well. We got a flashback to the day before Katrina struck, and it seems as though co-creator David Simon and company are reversing the hands of time for Season 2. Now that we know the characters and have gotten a feel for how they handled themselves in the aftermath of the storm and the flood, Season 2 -- or at least some of it -- is going to shine a light on the events of late August 2005.

It is, quite honestly, the best news that we skeptics could have hoped for, and which I didn't see in the cards. But with the confirmed death of John Goodman's character, Creighton Bernette, in episode 10, it stands to reason. Goodman is listed as a cast member in Season 2, and I was starting to worry that the only way that was feasible is if he came back as a ghost or some such nonsense. Thankfully -- hopefully -- that's not the case.

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Allan Toussaint. Credit: Paul Schiraldi

'Treme': Did he really jump? Do you really care?

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Falling in love with a television series is a singular experience. It’s a creation that infects your brain, your heart, your emotions. You think about it from week to week when it’s not on, you contemplate the next episode as you replay in your head the last one and all those that came before it. You unravel characters and motivations, try to get into the minds of the writers, marvel at the acting. Something is at stake: your time. You don’t want it to be wasted. You want to know that you’re going to learn something about the story, the characters, life. You want the pleasure of a good narrative. Otherwise, what's the point?

This isn’t a blog about AMC's series Breaking Bad, and I won’t talk too much about it other than to say that this weekend in between various other engagements I started on episode No. 1 of the first season (yes, I’m finally catching up) and couldn’t stop. I moved through all seven installments in the first season at various times on Saturday and woke up on Sunday morning with the series on my brain, made coffee, and sat down and watched three more. Over the course of that time I got teary-eyed and awed at least once per episode, flat-out bawled on another occasion, and found myself literally leaning close to the screen to get as near to the action as possible.

I knew that the new episode of "Treme" was on later in the weekend, but truth be told, it didn’t enter my head too much other than because I’m tracking the show and writing about it, I knew I’d be watching it. But not once did I get that obsessed feeling of soon visiting a made-up world. Never once did I look at the clock to count down the hours until it came on.

This wasn’t something I expected when I first started watching "Treme." I’ve enjoyed the show, but I'm getting increasingly frustrated by it. I’ve invested time and have gotten emotionally involved with a few aspects of it, mostly at something that Khandi Alexander's character, LaDonna, is going through. I’ve been blown away by certain sequences and scenes. I’ve loved lines of dialogue. But the obsession thing hasn’t happened the way that happened with "Breaking Bad" or "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" or "Mad Men."

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'Treme': While America was watching 'Lost,' a little brother was being found

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While the rest of series television was watching a fantasy about a fictional island, HBO broadcast the latest installment in a less footloose kind of drama: about the real New Orleans, where time froze on Aug. 29, 2005, and more people died than in all the episodes of "Lost" combined.

We're talking "Treme," and if you've yet to watch Episode Seven due to "Lost's" series finale Sunday night, be forewarned that this post contains spoilers.

The hurricane was all a dream, and all the characters have been dead the whole time.

Just kidding. This is reality, at least the fictionalized kind, and we've got a death on our hands. This wasn't "Lost." This was "Found."

In one of the most moving and expertly rendered scenes in the short life of David Simon’s New Orleans drama, LaDonna Batiste-Williams is standing in a parking lot surrounded by about a dozen semi-trucks. Each is pulling a refrigerated trailer containing unclaimed bodies lined in rows. Inside each body bag is a victim of the hurricane, the resulting flood or its aftermath.

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'Treme': Antoine donates his new bone to an old friend

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“Like you always said: Straight ahead and strive for tone,” says trombone player Antoine Batiste in Episode 6 of “Treme,” and though he’s talking about music to a veteran horn player who lost his instruments in the flood, he could very well be addressing the writing on the HBO series.

“Treme” tells it like it is -- or was -- at every opportunity. Mostly this is a good thing, unless it ends up with bang-you-over-the-head dialogue, which it sometimes does. People tend to say exactly what’s on their minds in the show, which is necessary in a post-Katrina setting in which needs are high and emotions rattled.

When Janette is faced with the reality that she won’t be able to make payroll at her restaurant, there’s no getting around it. No paychecks are coming, so she calls a staff meeting and says so.

Davis McAlary announced his run for City Council, and rest assured that, if nothing else, he’s going to be straightforward -- endearingly so -- with his message.

Creighton Bernette is becoming well-known in New Orleans, and nationally, by harnessing YouTube and his blog to vent his anger at the response to the hurricane and the flood -- and is drawing the attention of his publisher, who likes his honesty and tone.

In fact, one of the only characters on the show who’s not doing the straight-ahead thing is Batiste, whose many girlfriends and sex friends have no idea of how indirect and evasive he is. His children, too, are no doubt frustrated, though longingly, lovingly so. We meet another one of his offspring this episode, which brings the total number of kids the trombone player has to four, by three different women.

Batiste is a great character (unless you’re his girlfriend or child). He’s the archetypal musician: passionate about his music at the expense of nearly every other thing in his life (except sex). In the last episode we followed him as he shopped for a new trombone after having received one from a wealthy Japanese jazz fan. The assumption was that Batiste would probably end up swapping the gift for something a little less shiny, a little more seasoned. Maybe he’d sell it to make rent or buy one of his kids something (or not).

But no. Instead, he gives it to a veteran horn player and tells him that the fan brought him the “bone” because he loved jazz when, in reality, the fan purchased it specifically for Batiste because he loved Batiste's playing. But that little white lie goes a long way toward advancing Batiste's character as a flawed human whose intentions are pure -- well, except when it comes to women.

He's a good guy, basically, and we see that here.

You know who's not a good guy, though? That low-life cokehead Dutch piano player Sonny, who reveals his true loser colors in Episode 6 when he gets into an argument with his girlfriend, the lovely violinist Annie. What does he do? Frickin' hits her. Annie. He hits Annie, the most likable character on the series. Why? Because she got another good session gig, and he's not invited along. While he's busy vacuuming up the cocaine, she's getting work, and rather than congratulate her, he's jealous.

Nice one, jerk. You better not hit her again, or we're coming after you. Really. (Just being straight-ahead here.)

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste. Credit: Paul Schiraldi / HBO

'Treme': Cameos by New York chefs, Southern writers and Tennessee bacon

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With all the talk of music being a so-called "character" in HBO's "Treme," now might be a good time to shift to another creative discipline that the New Orleans series co-stars: food. There's a reason, it turns out, that creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer cast Kim Dickens as a struggling chef and not, say, a budding fashion designer or a lady mechanic.

To that end, we'd like an order of what chef Janette Desautel served the surprise four-top at her restaurant last night. As she and her assistant were turning tables during another busy night, one of her servers notified Chef Janette that a demanding foursome had just arrived without a reservation, recommended, she said, by John Besh.

Besh, if you're not down with your New Orleans cuisine, is the owner of the influential eatery August, and the name-drop of the real-life restaurateur arrived via four real-life super chefs, Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, David Chang and Wylie Dufresne. They were in town for a benefit, and in her typically straight-forward, confident way, she greeted them wryly: "Chefs, so nice of you to call ahead."

She seats them, returns to the kitchen and starts brainstorming what the hell she's going to serve them. Her assistant recommends a selection that she deems too East-Coast-centric. "We can't out New York a bunch of New York chefs," she decides, suggesting New Orleans food. "We low-ball them," she says, and proceeds to get busy cooking. The menu?

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

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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.

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'Treme': Khandi Alexander, as LaDonna Batiste-Williams, has no time for your problems

Treme13small If you’ve got a spare half hour and want some schooling, after you finish watching episode #3 of "Treme" in its entirety, go back and watch only Khandi Alexander’s scenes. Fast-forward through the other stuff – which continues to be engaging, to be sure – and focus on her work as LaDonna Batiste-Williams.

You can even turn down the sound. Just look at  what she does with her eyes, with her brow, the way she clenches her jaw, purses her lips, that smile that can drop away in a flash to a scowl or a full-blown fit. She can deaden her eyes or make them spill with life.

Whether LaDonna is respectfully nudging her mother to move to Baton Rouge, her voice lifting into a pinched plea while scrambling eggs, or whether, thus denied, she's snatching a piece of bacon off her mom’s plate and tearing at it with her teeth, Alexander is wonderfully magnetic in this episode, and it’s great to see her given work that’s allowing her to stretch out.

Alexander and series creator David Simon have a history. She appeared in his pre-Wire HBO mini-series "The Corner," but sat out "The Wire" and made a good living doing network dramas, most notably major roles in both "ER" and the "CSI" franchise.

As we mentioned in the first installment of our "Treme" coverage, we’ve had a krush on Khandi since her "News Radio" days, when her job consisted of rolling her eyes at Joe Rogan, spitting invectives at Phil Hartman and slapping around Andy Dick. She was the calm in the middle of the comedic news room chaos, but in "Treme," her inner self feels constantly on the verge of imploding as she deals with a fractured family whose pieces are spread across the South.

So anyway, about that face.

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'Treme': Love at first sight with Big Chief Lambreaux

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Two episodes into the HBO drama “Treme”, and the first strands of narrative are starting to reveal themselves. We’re getting a sense of character, witnessing the sprout of personalities and plot lines: Antoine Batiste has a lot of baby mamas, and he’s not too good to either the babies or their mamas. One of the latter, Ladonna Batiste Williams (Khandi Alexander), is being pulled away from New Orleans by her now-husband, living in Baton Rouge with her two sons while she tends bars and searches for her brother, apparently lost within the Louisiana prison system. 

Can Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) ever be able to keep a job and avoid borrowing money from his – it seems -- rich parents? How will series creators Simon and Overmyer harness Creighton Bernette’s rage at the government, and will actor John Goodman’s heart be able to handle it?

But with all this creation going on, we’ve got one particular character, Big Chief Lambreaux, on the brain.

We can’t stop thinking about him. The first episode’s climax was the Chief’s incredible Indian dance, a cocksure, strutting ceremony in a darkened neighborhood. All of a sudden, Lambreaux, who we first met in a car headed back to New Orleans after three months away and who looked to be nothing more than a stubborn burden on his son and daughter, is this otherworldly figure whose character contains multitudes. As we are beginning to learn, his reputation precedes him, and, like a king returning from a period of exile, is known by name if not by face as he roams the city gathering up his scattered tribe.

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'Treme' premiere offers less blood, and way more music, than 'The Wire'

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If you’ve heard or seen anything at all about David Simon’s lauded new series "Treme," which premiered last night on HBO, chances are you’ve been told that “music is a main character,” which is true in the same basic way that the medical jargon and hospital setting are central to  "Grey’s Anatomy," or quirky Alaska and frozen nature are to "Northern Exposure" (and Sarah Palin’s "Real American Stories," for that matter), and the sexy bosoms and, er, chariot races are to "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." 

 A musical instrument, a melody or radio signal is central to nearly every scene in the first episode of "Treme" (pronounced “treh-MAY”), just as blood, crack and/or a gun peppered "The Wire." We'd be willing to wager that at some point in the 10 episodes that make up this new show’s debut season, a New Orleans boogie woogie or bounce cut will accompany a murder, some hot sex or a new birth -- and not just the big metaphorical creation-story that opens up the series.

 “That sounds like Rebirth,” says DJ Davis McAlary, a pot-smoking, guitar-wielding, community radio DJ/music freak/jive-ass white dude played by Steve Zahn. He says this while he’s waking up next to his kinda sorta girlfriend and hearing the faint sound of a brass band parading in the distance. Within moments he’s pulled his bare-butted self out of bed and is drawn to the music. The literal “Rebirth” of which he speaks is the Rebirth Brass Band, the legendary New Orleans party band marching outside; the metaphorical rebirth references the day of the first ceremonial musical march through the city after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005.

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