Monday, December 30, 2013

Tremé, Season 4, Episode 5: “…To Miss New Orleans”

And so ends David Simon’s latest treatise on the American city. Tremé never had the narrative hooks that drove The Wire, but I never found the show less enthralling for it. The Wire was bleak; it offers little hope at real change and reform, instead showing time and time again that people who wish to do good deeds and effect genuine change are either ground down by their institutions, or are driven out of those institutions altogether, no matter what institution they belong to: the police, dock workers, politicians, educators, newspapermen, and even drug dealers. Tremé was significantly more positive. Certainly, its characters were ground down by institutions. The cops are mostly corrupt, as are the contractors and city officials in charge of restoring New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. But New Orleans also has music. And food. And Mardi Gras. Tremé was never about the failure of the institutions that govern the American city the way The Wire was; instead, it was about how life and culture persevere despite a city’s institutions and other flaws.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the way narrative often took a backseat to other concerns, particularly music. Tremé was always a fabulous showcase for the massive melting pot of New Orleans jazz, featuring scores of real life local musicians, and often lingering on scenes of musical performances well past the point where any other show would have cut away from them. If you found yourself checking your watch during the music scenes, then you were missing a part of the point of the show. Savoring these performances was a crucial part of the pleasure of Tremé, just as much as was watching Antoine shuck and jive his way from gig to gig, or laughing at the feuds and arguments Davis started (and usually lost), or watching LaDonna give someone the stink eye.

Nevertheless, characters were still important. Characters on Tremé persevered in face of adversity, and were even allowed small victories from time to time, which is especially clear if you examine the way many characters grew over the course of the series. Annie goes from a busker to an up-and-coming Nashville musician (even if she has to make some compromises along the way); Janette finally gets her own restaurant off the ground (and thanks to Nelson, she gets to keep her name on it); Delmond comes to terms with his roots, finding a balance between his New York jazz and his New Orleans upbringing; Sonny quits drugs and finds peace with his wife and her Vietnamese family; Antoine finds more meaning than he ever could have imagined in becoming a middle school music teacher; Toni manages to bring down a crooked cop, and even Davis finally matures (if only a little bit).

In the end, Tremé is about what makes New Orleans a special place, in both its charms and its dysfunctions, and this sensibility is captured perfectly in the series’ final scene. The show ends with an image of the makeshift mannequin Davis created at the start of the season to warn motorists of a giant, car-wrecking pothole in the middle of the road. Except now, post-Mardi Gras, the mannequin is covered in beads, feather boas, masks, and other party paraphernalia. It's a perfect synecdoche for the show's take on New Orleans culture: just like any other city, there are a lot of messed up and broken things, but the people who live there still make it their own, turning even its idiosyncrasies into a vibrant part of city life. The pothole is no longer a pothole, but a celebration of the things that make New Orleans unlike any other place in America. It’s a great end to a great show.

Other thoughts:

- Nelson was always somewhat of a disaster profiteer, but I'm glad he was able to win one for the angels in the end, selling Janette's asshole ex-partner a stake in the DOA jazz center in exchange for Janette's rights to name her restaurant after herself.

- The scene in the penultimate episode where Davis tries to get Nelson to invest in Davis' idea to open a jazz club was hilarious for many reasons (Davis' enthusiasm, Nelson's incredulity), but I laughed hardest at the scene's conclusion, when they adjourn their meeting and each head in different directions, Nelson getting into his hot little sports car, and Davis hopping on his bicycle. The two shots of them leaving are completely unnecessary for conveying the idea that the scene is over, but their different means of transportation speak volumes about the differences between their characters. Nevertheless, they were still able to form an unlikely bond through their love of Janette's food and New Orleans jazz. Food and music are each a hell of a thing.

- A sad end for Albert, but I enjoyed all of his and Delmond's scenes tremendously. It got quite dusty in my living room when Delmond played the song he had been working on for Albert.

- It's tough to choose, but Antoine is probably my favorite of the show's characters. David Simon is great at crafting characters that I simply want to spend time with from week to week (which is another part of the reason I wasn't too bothered by the show's lack of interest in plot). I greatly enjoyed the way he grew to love his students more than his own music career these past seasons. Quite a sea change in his character, but he never lost any of his swagger. He just grew a heart to accompany it, and in the process, became the man Desiree probably always knew he could be (even if he still has somewhat of a wandering eye).

- LaDonna's story is the only one that really seemed to peter out without much closure. She seemed to become more of an ancillary figure in the lives of Albert, Delmond, and Antoine. Although at least she got to reopen her bar.

- There were a number of nice moments in the final musical montage (including Terry railing against his sons buying Colts jerseys while he sports a Saints jersey), but my favorite was probably Annie telling off her producer when he tried to interfere with her recording session. She offers him her violin and clearly mocks him by asking something like, "You want to play it?" Way to stand up for yourself, Annie.