Despite flashes of brilliance, 'Treme' uneven
Melissa Leo plays Toni, who is dealing with the aftermath of her husband's suicide in the second season of "Treme."
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If David Simon's last HBO drama "The Wire" was Dickensian because of its novelistic take on urban life in the wake of American deindustrialization, then "Treme" is a Proustian look at life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
But instead of madeleines, we're treated to beignets, bar bands and a little too much boredom. Where "The Wire" and Mr. Simon's first drama, "Homicide: Life on the Street," kept us on the edge of our seats, "Treme" mostly leaves us nodding off while it ambles along at a pace that would bore escargot.
There are scenes in the first five episodes of the new season that are as compelling as anything television has to offer. But the viewer has to wade through material that fails more often than not to deliver on its promise.
The second season of "Treme" picks up nearly a year after the storm. Lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) and her daughter, Sofia, (India Ennenga), are still reeling from Creighton's (John Goodman) suicide at the end of last season.
Toni copes with her sudden and unexpected widowhood by throwing herself into a new case of potential police misconduct while Sofia uploads video rants similar to what Creighton might have recorded into the wilderness of a new social networking site called YouTube.
Meanwhile, trumpeter Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) continues his Peter Pan-like existence hunting gigs as the leader of his own squabbling band. His impatient girlfriend Desiree wants him to settle down with a gig as an assistant music teacher at the school where she teaches so they can finance the mortgage on their house.
While Antoine struggles with the challenges of becoming a responsible father, homeowner and band leader, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) has to leave the house he's been painstakingly rehabilitating when the original owner returns.
Lambreaux's son, celebrated trumpeter and band leader Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), is torn between his life in New York where gigs are plentiful and the mysterious pull that New Orleans continues to exert on his imagination during its hour of need.
Delmond's anger at the condescension New Yorkers have for his birthplace and the music that flows from it makes him obnoxious in return. His indignation may not make for interesting television, but it is understandable.
Having fled New Orleans for the high-end restaurants of New York, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) has to tolerate the humiliation of working for a brilliant but bullying master chef. When she finally crosses paths with fellow expat Delmond in a later episode, they remind each other of what they loved most and thought they'd left behind in New Orleans.
Steve Zahn continues to provide broad comic relief as the clueless DJ Davis McAlary, Janette's ex-boyfriend and current live-in girlfriend to up-and-coming violinist Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli). Toward the middle of the new season, Davis sets his eyes on conquering the entertainment world as yet another white boy rapper, but with a New Orleans twist. If he isn't already the most annoying character on television, he's in the running.
By far, the most compelling story arc belongs to Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams, the bar owner who has her own encounter with violence that leaves her character more vulnerable than she's ever been.
"Homicide" alumnus Jon Seda joins the cast as Nelson Hildago, a smooth-talking Texas businessman looking for ways to make money in the devastated city's real estate market. David Morse also returns as Lt. Terry Colson, the gruff cop with a passion to do right by the people of New Orleans. So far, he doesn't have a whole lot to do on the series, but Mr. Simon obviously has something big planned when it comes to exploring the role of the cops during and after the disaster.
Where Mr. Simon's earlier dramas crackled with universal insights, "Treme" doesn't feel like a show that speaks to viewers outside the region where it is filmed. While its use of musicians ranging from Galactic and Dr. John to Steve Earle and Juvenile is inspired, viewers have to endure too much subpar drama like the Sonny (Michael Huisman) "troubled musician" story line to get to the good stuff.
I'm not ready to give up on a show of such obvious quality yet, but I feel like a guy sitting in a restaurant in the French Quarter who has to send a meal back to the kitchen for some added spice. Still, even the worst meal in New Orleans is more enjoyable than what you get in most places back home.
First Published April 23, 2011 12:00 am