HBO’s Treme season 3 premiere opens at night, a redlining neighborhood, a crowd forming at an intersection, “25 months after the storm.” Struggling, cab-fare-haggling onetime bandleader and freelance trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) joins musicians gathering to play a street memorial to a late compatriot of the city’s vibrant music scene. As they’re revving up a number, NOPD prowlers cruise up, rollers lit. Cops say there has been a noise complaint and order them to disperse. The musicians protest that this is something they should not even have to protest, that even cops should know this is how they send off on of their own. The cops don’t care. Antoine and some of the ringleaders wind up in cuffs.
Every culture obviously carries with it rites and traditions rooted in history, but it is in cities, particularly old cities, we see multiples of these coalesce, collide, mash up and stew together in a living, breathing anthropology. Treme for two seasons immersed us in New Orleans’ peculiar stew, the real stuff that flows around the fanciful fratboy — and dilettante-cloisters of the French Quarter. Creators David Simon and Erik Overmyer’s methodical, compelling study of the denizens of the ravaged wards largely pegs to their attempts to re-establish their lives after Katrina by way of creative ritual but also, more pointedly, the degree to which they are allowed to do so.
The opening scene raises Simon and Overmyer’s overriding question, not just of New Orleans, which is, who do the cops, and authorities generally, work for?
This is a salient question in the best of times, but these are far from that. The NOPD is depleted and run-ragged, and an eerie patchwork of evidence remains — pursued by human rights attorney Toni Bernette, reluctant anomalously curious homicide cop Terry Colson and new-to-the-scene investigative reporter L.P. Everette (Chris Coy) — that officers may have participated in some murderous vigilantism when the city went off the grid. Bar-owner and Antoine’s ex LaDonna Batiste-Williams has already lost a brother to those questionable ministrations and was violently raped in her own place of business, but has bitten down and found her purpose again, though seeing her patience sorely worn by in-laws as she and family seek a new home back in NOLA. Teachers have been laid off en masse, the city resorting to hiring auxiliaries, which sees a now bandless Antoine serving as music teacher at a local middle school, which may be suited to his gruff but plainspoken nature.
Compounding everything, federal and vulture capital is here, sort of, but sits somewhere warehoused in bulk parcels, waiting for the right graft payoff or the right nod from the right suit to see it apportioned. Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) came here to glom some of that green, but lost footing when his connection on the city council took a federal corruption indictment. He’s still gladhanding, naturally, meeting with a big-money developer a-dither about a new jazz museum. “It means moving city hall to a new location,” the suit says, “[but] we’re trying to monetize the culture down here in a very smart civic way.” Nelson comes across a new initiative, New Orleans Affordable Home-ownership (NOAH), by way of one of his previous subcontractors, who admits to doing superficial fix-ups on structurally unsound houses to prep them to get flipped in one of many imminent land deals ushering in a “new” New Orleans. He seeks a meeting with the boss lady of the project, but she terminates it after he says he is neither a fed or “with the RNC.”
If Simon and Overmyer have not been prone to driving these intrigue threads overly fast, it is because their narrative links inexorably to the city’s multivariate music — all concert scenes shot being actual live performances — as if it were the life’s blood that animates everything else, good and bad. Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a DJ, walking encyclopedia of NOLA and would-be musician, seems about to be (again) lapped talent-wise by his girlfriend Annie Tee, who, after tenuous first steps as a singer/songwriter, has found a belting new voice fronting her own band, drawing industry interest. Mardi Gras Indian tribe chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), with his son Delmond, a successful jazz trumpeter, has issued the release of traditional tribe songs fused with contempo-jazz and -funk, and thought the record has garnered a buzz, he continues to work refurbishing old houses as well as his own — portending a collision course with people remapping/rezoning/parceling the “new” New Orleans with little counsel of most of the people it will effect.
There is a funny, barbed moment that links up all this, past, Katrina, future, land, graft and the great American penchant to lose value amid the gloss of wealth and shiny new things. Davis, more appropriate to his skills, has begun a side-gig, musical tours. One stop, a studio where numerous rock & roll and R&B classics were cut, is now a laundromat. Another is a park where spontaneous gatherings of musicians (a la the street scene that began the episode) helped stew a vast array of ethno-cultural sounds into American jazz, though closed off in disrepair since the storm. After another stop, where he shows them where Louis Armstrong’s birthplace used to be, his tour group trickles away in disgust. Says one before departing: “Do you guys ever actually preserve anything of note?”