Treme Season 1, Episode 1 “Do You Know What It Means”
For many, watching a David Simon series (The Wire, Treme, Generation Kill, The Corner) is about watching the institutional failures of America. And while there’s no doubting the precision with which Simon dissects the various socio-political establishments in America, I always find myself drawn to Simon’s television work for a different reason (besides his fantastic sense of culture, layered characters, and insane dedication to realism), especially Treme. Above all, shows like The Wire and Treme are about the power of humanity, the resilience which everyday people find themselves full of hope, even while everything crumbles around them – be it buildings, communities, or entire cultures.
When it comes to things crumbling in America, Hurricane Katrina is an even more ideal petri dish for Simon’s contemplative dramatizations than Baltimore: in the aftermath of one single event, the most prevalent (and subtle) of Simon’s recurring themes were magnified. Social injustice, obliteration of the blue-collar class, a culture compromised by commercialism… all of these ideas find their way into the 78 minutes of “Do You Know What It Means”, delivered by a variety of colorful characters, from the insanely annoying/endearing DJ Davis and steadfast Albert Lambreaux, to the irresponsible trombonist Antoine Batiste and passionate college professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman, in one of his finest roles). Each of them, in some form, finds themselves butting up against some of Treme‘s Big Ideas, ideas even more nuanced and geographically specific than The Corner or The Wire at its most self-reflective: Davis experiences the commercialization of New Orleans sacred music culture from multiple angles, just as Antoine struggles to find and maintain his place in said culture throughout. Characters mention FEMA, and everyone shares the experience of their house (if you only had four feet of water and lost your roof, you did well) throughout, detailing just how desperate people are for the country to step up and help them rebuild.
But anyone who has watched Simon’s work knows one thing: the government is going to help the people rebuild anything. What they are interested in doing is something that Treme would dip its toes into during later seasons: in “Do You Know What It Means”, the second step to this idea is absent, if only to highlight the other idea, the beating heart at the center of every jazz rhythm and passionate DJ Davis-speech to follow in the series: the one thing that can rebuild a community or a culture is itself, people coming together in harmonious existence to rebuild what was lost, stolen, drowned, forgotten, or left for dead.
It’s no accident so many of Treme‘s musical numbers are about the collaboration: the shared spotlight of many musical scenes (including those in the pilot) are about people coming together over a shared love. For the musicians of the show (from Antoine to Kermit and Elvis Costello, to those we haven’t met yet, like Sonny and Annie), Treme is about coming together to create and celebrate music; for others, it’s a different type of love for New Orleans that brings them home. Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, a personal favorite) comes home seeking justice for others (as she always has, something we find out with the pissed-off cop she runs into at a popular cop diner), LaDonna (Khandi Alexander, delivering her finest on-screen performance to date) returns to run her bar and find her brother Daymo, and Albert Lambreaux returns to rebuild the home he raised his children in (and the bar where he kept his heritage alive)… there’s a little part of New Orleans that draws every character home, even when everything is telling them to drop and leave – like Janette’s struggling restaurant, trying to bring authentic home-cooked food (no Chinese oysters or crawfish here!) to her customers, damned what the cost to her profit margin (or the financial survival of her business) might be.
As much as they shit on the government and the general state of things around the different neighborhoods that make up Treme‘s creative playground, the characters of Treme love New Orleans, a love that seeps through every facet of production, making Treme one of the most distinct, localized television shows in history, dramatic or otherwise. New Orleans is just as much a character as Janette or Albert are, trying to pick herself up from the man-made mess she made for herself – and her soul is a strong one, one that refuses to die in the face of destruction, violence, and uncertainty. There are rumors of Carnivale being canceled in “Do You Know What It Means”, but nobody believes it: deep down, everyone from the city’s unseen mayor to the most destitute, openly desolate characters have faith in Carnivale – even Albert, a Big Chief without any of his disciples around to make outfits and march down the streets, in a parade that may not even happen (a recurring idea throughout is that after Katrina, many people were not returning to New Orleans, doubling down on the troubling aftermath of the storm).
At the core of Treme is this hope in the face of all-consuming depression: and despite these heavy ideas (the pilot literally ends with a funeral procession), Treme remains one of the most optimistic drams I can remember watching. Yes, it is a series full of disheartening moments – but at its very heart, Treme was optimistic in ways that The Wire never attempted to approach, suggesting that communities were ultimately stronger than an ineffective government. And with a cast full of lovable characters (yes, EVEN DJ Davis, our pot-smoking Jimmy McNulty surrogate) and undeniable respect for the power of music in healing and inspiring, “Do You Know What It Means” is a triumphant first hour to a meandering, philosophic, brutally critical series that was light on story, heavy on character, and soaked in a thick coating of New Orleans music, one of the most original, memorable dramatizations in television history.