Perhaps the most pointed scene in the final episode of Treme’s second season saw Young Turk Texas real estate developer Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) stewing in a bar with his blue-collar cousin Arnie. Hidalgo came to New Orleans because, subscribing to a conspicuously American purview (disaster=opportunity), he sees gold in redevelopment of the Crescent City’s redlining properties and has greased certain cogs in the machine to mine it. But one of those cogs, a city councilman, has turned up under indictment, meaning all connected to him are abruptly out of favor, and all Nelson has done, he ruminates, may be for naught.
“What do you do?” Arnie asks.
Initially stumped, Arnie finally says, “I do deals. I make money.”
“But what do you make?” Arnie says. “What is it that you do? I mean, when I’m a bouncer, I’m making sure the club gets paid its cover and I’m keeping the drunks from grabbing the girls and fighting each other. And when I’m up on a house, I’m putting on a roof.”
This served as prelude to the Peabody Award-winning Treme’s Season 3, which bows this Sunday night on HBO. Apropos of a mass tragedy so unique in contemporary history, creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer gave us a cross-section of the citizens rising from ruins, academics to attorneys, cops to chefs to bar-owners, to the welter of musicians who weave its disparate cultures into one. Where Treme’s Season 1 saw them dealing with post-Katrina shock and Season 2 struggling to find their feet as the damaged city heaves back to life in violent fits, Season 3 sees them digging in their heels, attempting to re-establish something like the community washed away, even as others seek to remake it.
Simon’s landscape is not populated by traditional heroes in the Hollywood sense. This living paean to New Orleans was to be about real (if fictional) people coping with real, nigh-apocalyptic travail: aging “chief” of Mardis Gras Indian tribe, Albert (Clarke Peters), a surly but natural community leader, stalwartly maintaining tradition while intrepidly attempting to rebuild his home; Antoine (Wendell Pierce), an everyday world-class trombonist attempting the cat-herding duties of fielding a regularly-gigging R&B band, now finding a groove passing on his knowledge to a middle-school band class; DJ, indefatigable NOLA music nerd and would-be next-big-thing musician, Davis, whose zeal and shameless self-promotion just can’t compensate for the fact that he’s just not that good; his girlfriend, Annie, blossoming into a singer/songwriter who will obviously soon eclipse him; Janette (Kim Dickens), a chef who lost her business to the storm, and after a learning exile in New York amongst chefly luminaries, has been targeted as a potential new star back in NOLA; LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), inheritor of a vibrant neighborhood dive, reclaiming her legacy and facing down the perpetrators of her violent rape.
In a traditional sense, Simon’s most intriguing mini-arcs lie with Toni (Melissa Leo), an intrepid civil rights lawyer, and, increasingly, her maybe-romantic interest, Terry (David Morse), a reluctant homicide detective. They represent a kind of unofficial Truth Commission, probing from different ends a string of deaths conspicuously covered up by the NOPD. To this thread, Season 3 adds a new player, a young reporter attempting to make his bones investigating possible vigilante murders by members of a white NOLA neighborhood, The Point, against people of color who might have crossed the wrong avenue in post-Katrina limbo. Compelling for the obvious immediate injustice involved, this is not so disconnected from the kaleidoscope of other stories.
The response to and coverage of the Katrina aftermath showed an indisputable, embarrassing-for-America racial bias. But Simon and Overmyer are brushing a next-phase in that continuum, veiled but well recognized in some quarters: that the “opportunity” presented by Katrina, to carpetbaggers rushing in for reconstruction contracts is, in fact, to create a “whiter” city, one where the privation and crime that long plagued New Orleans is not addressed, just foreclosed on.
Nelson lurks in fancypants joints, still, looking prove his mettle to the besuited swells. And those swells are ultimately coming for Antoine and the Big Chief and LaDonna and the vestiges of Davis’s treasured living musical history. Tracts will be purchased, homes bulldozed, high-rises will go up, Emeril, and possibly Janette, will have new customers. Nelson and the people who don’t do anything are interested in NOLA The Brand!, not New Orleans the City, nor the communities that compose it.
In these days of talk of “47%” and “looters” vs. “producers,” Simon and Overmyer engage as salient a conversation as we can have: Who truly wields the teeth to click with the cogs of a society? Who is owed a place there? What did they do to earn it? If it is simply a monetary buy-in, does habitation of a great-if-ravaged metropolis become a pay-to-play thing? If it does, do you not obviate the simple up-and-down-the-street equity of people who made the unique thing what it is, warts and all? What, as Arnie was asking last season, is wealth versus value?
The latter infuses Treme. It is a question of the difference between this magnificent menagerie of New Orleans and, say, Six Flags Over Bourbon Street.
Treme airs Sunday nights at 10/9CT on HBO.
Treme Season 3 Photo: HBO/Paul Schiraldi