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

May 24, 2010 |  8:32 am

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.

LaDonna has just identified the decomposing body of her brother David, who was picked up for running a red light in the hours before Katrina hit, arrested and tossed in jail on a standing warrant that was later determined to be invalid. We’ve followed this storyline for the first six episodes; it is, thus far, the most fully realized narrative in the series, and the one that will hopefully earn Khandi Alexander her first Emmy nod.

From the first scene in Episode One when we met LaDonna, her brother has been on her mind, and we’ve watched the search for David by her and her lawyer, Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), unfold from precinct to jailhouse to courtroom to abandoned New Orleans police car. Each new lead has yielded another crumb of information, and the gathered collection of evidence led us in Sunday night's show into the courtroom where the two were sitting before Judge John A. Gatling. In a perfectly pitched soliloquy, the judge, played by Tim Reid (a.k.a. Venus Flytrap from "WKRP in Cincinnati"), looks over the evidence, and then unloads a heap of outrage on a system that allowed an innocent man to get lost for six months while in custody.  

The judge explains that he often has to defend New Orleans when outsiders criticize the city’s many structural deficiencies. “Too many are quick to describe this city as a bastion of corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, of Southern laziness, of ineffectual policing and systemic dysfunction within our legal system,” he says -- outlining in perfect form topics that seem to occupy series co-creator Simon's mind on a regular basis -- before laying into the city prosecutor who has tried to block Toni and LaDonna at every turn. 

The judge gives the city 72 hours to find David, and the quest is on, which ultimately leads us to LaDonna in a parking lot surrounded by the collected unknown victims of the flood. 

"All these trucks got bodies?" she asks a police officer, surveying the lot. The look of fear and dread on her face is real; it's like she already knows as she enters the trailer. As the cop unzips the body bag and pulls back the plastic, LaDonna recoils at seeing the mangled face of her brother, a Y-shaped cut consuming his chest, his face battered, and she runs from the truck and into the lot.

Toni remains inside with the officer and reads the death certificate: "Cause of death, cerebral hemorrhage," she says. "Manner of death, accident. Fall from top bunk."

Outside, LaDonna is smoking a cigarette, and a camera rolls around her, catching the look of horror on her face as her eyes dart from truck to truck, each containing a dozen horror stories similar to hers.

Yes, there were other plot lines Sunday night. Simon continues to roll out the big-picture stories dealing with political corruption (Davis McAlary's run for City Council), housing (Chief Lambreaux's sit-in), relationship dynamics (Sonny and Annie's messed-up thing), day-to-day life (Antoine Batiste's sadness over the loss of a musical mentor), and the struggles of commerce (Janette Desautel's post-restaurant work life).

But David's death and its aftermath were the centerpiece. And, unlike on "Lost," the only bright light coming in through a doorway was the overcast sky illuminating a moldy dead body -- one that is really dead. And it doesn't seem like Simon is going to create any kind of alternate reality, "flash-sideways or otherwise," in which it isn't. 

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Khandi Alexander, Venida Evans and Melissa Leo. Credit: Paul Schiraldi / HBO