The Drama Club: ‘Treme’ Begins, ‘Life Unexpected’s Season Ends

by | April 13, 2010 at 7:32 AM | The Drama Club

Khandi Alexander in Treme (HBO)

Khandi Alexander in Treme (HBO)

Watching ‘Treme,’ HBO’s latest drama from David Simon, the co-creator of ‘The Wire,’ is a longterm investment.  As the man behind what many people agree is the greatest drama in television history, Simon has earned the freedom to tell stories in his unique style, eschewing the traditional conventions of television narrative. Simon plunks viewers down in what is, to people who have not spent significant time in New Orleans, an unfamiliar universe,and trusts them to figure out what is going on.  The premise is simple: a group of people who live in the city’s Treme neighborhood struggling to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Don’t know what a second line is?  Or why some men dress up in elaborate feathered headdresses for Mardi Gras? Or how any of the characters connect? Keep watching. It will make sense. Eventually.  ‘The Wire’ used the same technique, which may be why it became more popular after it was released on DVD, when the ability to pause, rewind and watch multiple episodes in one sitting eliminated the need for viewers to create flowcharts and spread sheets to keep track of everything that was happening.  Fortunately, ‘Treme’ is easier to follow.  While ‘The Wire’ had an excess of plot, ‘Treme,’ so far, is almost all character.  The focus is on who, not what or why.  By the end of the first episode, I had a sense of their personalities and situations, if not all of their names. Fortunately, there were enough familiar actors that I could easily identify people as “Steve Zahn, crusading, obnoxious hipster public radio DJ” (actual character name: Davis McAlary) and “Khandi Alexander, bar owner who is so excited that she has material worthy of her talent after toiling on ‘CSI: Miami.’”(actual character name Ladonna Batiste-Williams.)

Read: Wendell Pierce Returns Home In ‘Treme’

Most pilots introduce characters with obvious personality defining moments and exposition, making it clear who is a hotheaded baseball fanatic and who is desperate to get married. ‘Treme’ just drops viewers down in their lives. Over the course of an hour and a half we learned that Ladonna could not make things work with her jazz musician ex-husband Antoine, (Wendell Pierce) and that Davis’s  chef friend-with-benefits Janette (Kimberly Dickens) is frustrated with his irresponsible, slacker ways.  The unexpected moral of the story was something that applies all over the world: don’t date a musician. As Ladonna puts it, “Ain’t no way to make that s–t right.”

I expected a searing indictment of the government’s response along the lines of ‘The Wire’s season four focus on Baltimore’s public schools.  Instead, the series is largely good-natured, with most of the characters soldiering through their rough circumstances with good humor and a degree of optimism. The series is beautifully shot, with perfectly composed images of boarded up houses and the beauty of the skyline at  night.  There was terrific acting, cameos by real New Orleans musicians to lend verisimilitude, and attention to local detail. Yet I found myself admiring the show from a distance rather than engrossed in the action.  I remembered my college film professor referring to Oscar bait issue films as “recycled paper” because they tried so hard to be important, high brow and intellectually stimulating.  Of course, ‘The Wire’ took a few episodes to become engaging.  Perhaps once the plot points that were alluded to (Ladonna’s missing brother, Antoine’s children in Baton Rougue,) develop into full stories, the series will become something to watch for more than the just the atmosphere and performances.

‘Life Unexpected’ Is The First of this Week’s Finales

Though it is only April, three shows have their finales this week.  ‘Life Unexpected’ — a bubble show which may not know whether it will get a second season until the end of May — had the difficult task of providing closure yet setting up a cliffhanger for next year.  The all but officially canceled ‘Melrose Place’ will air its series finale opposite the return of ‘Glee.’  It’s a safe bet that nobody will watch. ‘Ugly Betty’ will air its series finale on Wednesday night, to the chagrin of its fans.

I have been a big champion of ‘Life Unexpected,’ but a lot of people I know describe it as a show that they want to like better than they actually do.  Looking back on the season, I wonder if it was a mistake for Cate (Shiri Appleby) to sleep with Baze (Kristoffer Polata)  in the pilot.  It made it difficult to believe that she was in love with Ryan (Kerr Smith) and undercut the power of the central love triangle.  It seems like their hookup would have been a good end of the season cliffhanger.  Having Baze’s friend Math (Austin Basis) also crushing on her took her dangerously close to the Marcia Brady zone.  It’s hard to root for a character who has every man on the show falling at her feet despite being a complete mess who treats them like crap. The precocious, prickly Lux (Brittany Robertson) really does not lend herself to the sort of fun parent-child interactions that made ‘Gilmore Girls‘ so entertaining.

That said, the season finale did a good job of setting up the high stake romantic conflicts that were lacking this season. After spending most of the episode acting as though marrying Ryan would be a huge mistake, and having conversations with Baze and Lux about her lingering feelings for her high school fling, she decided to go through with the wedding.  Baze, naturally, after hashing out his own Daddy issues decided to do his best impression of the Graduate. Cue the attempts to get to the church on time.  Having him arrive after Ryan and Cate said their vows both provided closure to the triangle and set up a second season filled with longing and regrets. I hope the CW will give this promising show a chance to let all of these dynamics play out.