Meditations on HBO's 'Treme': If You Don't Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans, You Didn't Get It
Updated: Dec 31, 2022
I know, I know…I’m 12 years late to the party (or in this case, the second line). But back in 2010, I didn’t have a cellphone, let alone cable tv. And definitely not HBO. And so it is with great fascination and not a small bit of nostalgia that I am currently immersed in binge-watching Treme, that New Orleans-centric program from 2010-2013 created by David Simon, who had previously gotten tons of acclaim for his hard-hitting, Baltimore-based prison drama, The Wire, which I have yet to check out. (I only recently got HBO hooked up here at home, and after first delving deeply into Succession, Hacks and both seasons of The White Lotus, I went back into the time machine to check out the HBO series on The City That Care Forgot.
After viewing the first season of this show set in the Bywater, Marigny, Lower 9th ward and Treme neighborhoods of NOLA, I was hooked. Having spent three and a half years in the Crescent City during the mid '90s, this show rang so true for both me and my wife Lauren (a NOLA resident for over 20 years), that we could only nod silently in amazement. The dialogue, the characters, the location shooting was all so perfectly depicted and so right-on from our experience that it felt very much like watching a documentary. We sailed through Season 2 with our jaws still very much on the ground at how accurate and inside Treme was. I mean, having chef Emeril Lagasse soliloquizing about revered Croatian-born Anthony Uglesich outside the long-retired chef's beloved and now boarded up restaurant on the corner of Barrone Stree and Erato was just one of numerous 'secret handshakes' that this insightful show imparted in each episode.
I was sold from Episode One. But apparently, a majority of tv watchers (those living outside the hallowed ground of the Crescent City) did not buy it...and especially not after Season 2. I went back and read some reviews on Treme from 2010-2013 and was very surprised to see just how intensely some writers felt about David Simon's show, which was labeled 'boring,' 'interminable' and 'self-celebratory' in various accounts. One wag called it "A TED Talk with music." Another slammed it as "an ambitious, occasionally compelling, consistently frustrating mess of a show.
In Dave Thier's piece for The Atlantic, which bore the headline "David Simon Loves New Orleans Too Much to Make 'Treme' Interesting," he wrote: "The most obvious problem with Treme is that it is boring. It's all set to an endless montage of New Orleans things: People in the know are meant to constantly recognize restaurants, musicians, streets, and sayings. The Columns! Domilise's! Dr. John! Simon sure has done his homework, the audience thinks. He's been to restaurants! There is nothing New Orleans loves so much as New Orleans—but the show can't get past the desire to be authentic. It feels like a hell of a vacation in New Orleans. Granted, it's a well-informed, nuanced vacation, and Simon has clearly made an effort to ask the locals where to go, but it is a vacation nonetheless."
And then there's this from Rolf Potts, a fellow critic at The Atlantic: "Treme, which depicts post-flood New Orleans largely through the lens of its music culture, firmly roots itself in an anti-tourist vision of New Orleans. The show hasn't unpacked the received cultural stereotypes of the city so much as fine-tuned those stereotypes through compulsive attention to documentary detail. Treme dedicates itself so totally to showcasing unique local color at the micro-level that it transforms New Orleans into a weirdly hermetic dreamland—a gritty, self-celebratory refuge from the dull forces of mass culture, where characters walk around saying things like, 'Po'boys aren't sandwiches, they're a way of life!' and 'Where else could we ever live, huh?' In Treme's world, brilliant jazz trumpeters are more interested in barbecue than fame, voodoo-Cajun bluesmen sacrifice live chickens on the radio, and fast-food chains exist only when junkie musicians need a paper sack to camouflage their stash. Few moments in the show exist outside of its notion of what New Orleans represents in contrast to the rest of the United States."
To which I say: "Yeah, you right!"
Potts continues: "All too often, the show has the feel of something that has been designed to be to be admired rather than enjoyed—and, like a leather-bound set of Great Books, it has a way of advertising its own importance without actually offering anything new. At times it comes off less like a character drama than an avant-garde adaptation of Wikipedia's 'List of Musicians from New Orleans,' serving to remind viewers that their lives are less than complete if they’ve missed out on the musical stylings of Germaine Bazzle, or Earl Turbinton, or Frogman Henry, or Trombone Shorty, or Mr. Google Eyes."
To which I counter: "Desitively!"
Potts adds: "In Treme, characters don't just eat; they advertise their taste by nattering at length about how Gene's Po-Boys is the place to get hot sausage, whereas Liuzza's by the Track is the place for barbecued shrimp (in Season One, Janette herself eats lunch at Domilise's instead of Parasol’s because she prefers shrimp po'boys to roast beef). New Orleans is, of course, renowned for its signature dishes, and Janette's irritation at the popularity of her ravioli feels puerile in comparison with what the cooks at Drago's or Camellia Grill must feel every time someone orders charbroiled oysters or pecan waffles."
All bits of minutiae that ring true to me.
In his article in GQ titled "Goodbye to Treme: The Show New Orleans Loved, Even If No One Else Did," Tom Carson wrote: "The series wasn’t just defiantly local-minded—in-jokes, cameos by everyone from music-scene fixture Kermit Ruffins to disgraced former City Councilman Oliver Thomas as themselves—but openly out to celebrate the uniqueness of New Orleans and the city’s survival/renewal after Katrina. The risk was that audiences not already sold on the place’s motley glories would feel excluded and ticked off about it instead of drawn in, fascinated, and vicariously welcomed. And it didn’t work. By the second season, viewership was down to around half a mil, pretty dismal even by boutique-TV standards—and it’s perfectly possible that around a third of that crowd lived within the city limits, or at least had once. The fact is, I don’t know a single person who stuck with Treme who wasn’t either a New Orleanian or else using the show for a long-distance New Orleans fix."
In his GQ assessment of the show entitled "Why Treme Failed," Sean Fennessey wrote: "Frankly, Treme was rarely good television. Simon has spoken at length about the profound effect that the music of N.O. had on him and his fellow writers and the creation of the show. But too often that influence overtakes him. Several scenes in Treme consist almost entirely of a band playing a song, front-to-back. There’s a nobility to spotlighting the music of the city and its little-known history. Greats like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Donald Harrison Jr., and Kermit Ruffins made guest appearances this season, among dozens of other performers. (Hey, there’s Elvis Costello! And Irma Thomas playing poker! And Steve Earle, weirdly, not playing Steve Earle!) One problem: Musicians, as a rule, can’t act. The scenes featuring these non-thespians pulled viewers right out the moment by forcing us to figure out a) Who is that sort of famous person? b) Why are they talking so stiffly? But worse than that is an error in ecution. Listening to music is not like watching television. TV is a static experience; we sit in place for long stretches, taking it in. Music, especially the brass-driven sounds of the second-line parades or one of Ruffins’ local club gigs, is about movement, excitement, and energy. Music on TV almost never works. And on a show that often seemed to be about nothing more than observing the day-to-day tick by, allotting more than a quarter of each episode to it made something that should have been breezy (fun, even!) often feel interminable."
I must say, I don't get all the harsh criticism. Perhaps because I recognized so many streets and spent countless nights at Tipitina's and the Maple Leaf and attended Mardi Gras Indian parades on Super Sunday and St. Joseph's Day and lived just down Dauphine Street from Vaughan's, where trumpeter Kermit Ruffins cooked red beans and rice outside the club between sets (all of which is depicted in beautiful detail in Treme), it rings so true. I felt the life-affirming energy of waking up early on Mardi Gras morning and heading to the Zulu parade. I ate breakfast at The Clover Grill in the French Quarer and the Camellia Grill Uptown. I voarciously consumed Paul's Fantasy (a glorious dish of pan-fried trout topped with
grilled shrimp and new potatoes) at Uglesich and ate burgers and drank hurricanes at The Port of Call on Esplanade. I did my laundry at Checkpoint Charlie's while Coco Robicheaux played solo in the bar area, attended some Mardi Gras Indian practices at the H&R Bar on Second and Dryades, at snow cones at Hansen's Snow-Bliz on Tchoupitoulas. I caught Walter Wolfman Washington at Colt 45 and Buffa's, saw The Dirty Dozen Brass Band at The Glass House and spent many a late night at Benny's blues bar on the corner of Camp and Valence in the 13th Ward. I also worked the overnight shift (midnight ’til 6 a.m.) at radio station WWOZ in the heart of Armstrong Park…(“It’s 3 a.m. in the Crescent City and you’re listening to 90.7 WWOZ…I am The Milkman, and this is Eric Dolphy…"). That gig was so loose and liberating -- so quintessentially New Orleans -- that I could play whatever I wanted at any time, since I was literally the only one in the entire building at that late-night hour. This kind of freedom prompted me to institute an annual St. Patrick's Day ritual, wherein I cued up and played The Chieftains and John Coltrane's Interstellar Space...at the same time! And people invariably would call up asking where they could purchase that disc!
I only lived in New Orleans for three and a half years before returning to NYC, and during my tenure down below sea level I became intimately acquainted with guitarist extraordinaire/conceptual humorist Phil deGruy (who I ended up producing a record for) and the members of that longstanding collective of modern jazz explorers known as Astral Project (guitarist Steve Masakowski, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist James Singleton, drummer Johnny Vidacovich). I befriended legendary poet-political upstart and former manager of the proto-punk band MC5 John Sinclair (who had a great blues show on WWOZ when I was there). I spent time in the studios of legendary producer-engineer Mark Bingham, who had The Boiler Room in Gert Town (where I presided over Phil deGruy's first album, Innuendo Out The Other) before opening Piety Street Studios in my Bywater neighborhood. I became acquainted with countless other musicians, scribes and fellow epicureans during my three and a half years in New Orleans.
Along the way I saw Snooks Eaglin at MidCity Rock ’n Bowl, attended Danny Barker's funeral, rode my bike past Fats Domino’s house in the Lower 9th ward. I went to gigs at Joe's Cozy Corner, The Howlin' Wolf, The Palm Court, Cafe Brasil, Carrollton Station and Jimmy's. I saw Trombone Shorty playing in the streets when he was still short. I went to Ernie K-Doe’s Mother in Law Lounge when he was still co-hosting an afternoon show on WWOZ with DJ Tootie. I ate shimp po' boys at Frady's on Dauphine and Louisa, mac 'n' cheese at Rocky & Carlo's in Chalmette, gumbo and crawfish etouffe at Liuzza's By The Track. And I spent many an inebriated night at Jake and Snake's Christmas Club Lounge.
So while I may not be from NOLA, I get it. Deeply.
During those three and a half years that I lived in New Orleans, I soaked up all of the color and romance, history and mystery, charm and menace and music that the City That Care Forgot had to offer in those pre-Katrina times. And now watching Treme brings me right back to that place where I resided below sea level 30 years ago. I am loving that show! And I heartily recommend it to anyone who loves New Orleans music, New Orleans cooking and New Orleans culture (currently streaming in all of its funky glory on HBO).