In an early episode of the new season of "Tremé" (it returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO), chef Janette Desautel is wined and dined by Tim, a businessman who wants her to come work for him. Tim points to the restaurant where they're eating as a model for what he'd like Janette to do, and says the place is "Much loved by critics, by customers, and you know why? Because from day one, these guys did whatever the fuck they wanted. They didn't give a shit what the market told them to cook. They figured out who they were, what they were good at, what they wanted to do, and they did that."
That’s the dream for any artist, whether their tools are a kitchen knife, a paint brush, a trombone or a laptop: do what you want to do, do it best, and you will find success.
Reality rarely works out that way, unfortunately. Talent only sometimes turns into success, and the successful often aren't as good at what they do as the strugglers.
That scene, written by "Tremé" co-creator Eric Overmyer, plays out like a mission statement for what he and David Simon have been trying to do for three years now. "Tremé" doesn't bend to the demands of the market. It's a show about New Orleans and jazz, a city and an artform that are distinctly American but have both been half-forgotten. Its priorities are character, music and local color, with plot waaaay down the list. Even Simon's "The Wire," with its annual police investigation, was more overtly commercial.
And over the 10 episodes of the new season, "Tremé" remains outstanding at what it sets out to do. The performances — by Wendell Pierce (as charming trombonist Antoine Batiste), Clarke Peters (as immovable Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux) and Khandi Alexander (as Antoine's fierce ex-wife LaDonna Batiste-Williams), among many others — are so good that the characters can drive the series whether their stories are big (LaDonna prepares to testify against the man who raped her last season, Albert has a medical problem) or small (Antoine embraces the responsibilities of his day job as a school band director). The music is so well-chosen, and eclectic (this year, heavy metal joins the rotation with jazz, soul, alt-country, hip-hop and more) that the show can get away with pausing the (minimal) action several times an episode just to let us enjoy the performances. And the sense of atmosphere and local color is unmatched among any show in recent memory; even though "The Wire" was loaded with Baltimore specifics, it could have taken place in many cities, where "Tremé" could only be about New Orleans, and captures the city so well you'll feel like you've just spent an hour there.
Though the new season isn't any kind of radical transformation — "Tremé" is what it is, and anyone waiting for it to turn into "The Wire: Port of Call New Orleans" had best give up hope(*) — it does feel like the best one yet.
(*) Though, perhaps as rewards for those who followed them from Maryland to Louisiana, the writers insert a few very familiar turns of phrase into the new season, including "all the pieces matter" and "the game is rigged."
The longer you get to know the people on a character-based show, the more their stories come to matter, so that even small changes — say, a slight distance between boisterous DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) and his violinist girlfriend Annie (Lucia Micarelli), or musician-turned-fisherman Sonny (Michiel Huisman) going through an elaborate courting process with the daughter of his Vietnamese boss — have tremendous weight. And there are also small tweaks to elements that didn't quite work previously. As civil rights lawyer Toni Burnette, Oscar winner Melissa Leo spent the second season investigating the case of a young man who was allegedly murdered by police in the aftermath of Katrina. Because it took place before the series began, and involved the death of a character we had no connection to, the story felt like an abstraction. This season, Toni makes an unofficial partnership with young reporter L.P. Everett (Chris Coy), who's looking into a story that parallels hers, and the friendship between the two of them gives the story a hook it didn't have last year.
Yet for all that quality, this is a situation where artists doing what they wanted to the best of their obvious abilities has not translated into success. "Tremé" isn't the uniform critical darling that "The Wire" was, and it continues to exist entirely due to the generosity of HBO and their executives' desire to keep working with Simon. Simon and Overmyer have a four-year plan for the series, but it's unclear if they'll get to play it all out. Last month, HBO co-president Michael Lombardo said a decision on a fourth season would probably have to be made before the third debuted, just to allow for the logistics of filming in a city with a hurricane season, but no decision has been announced yet. So these 10 episodes may be it.
And though Simon has often said that his characters are not mouthpieces for his political views (even if they often say things he agrees with), it's hard to look at this season and not see Simon and Overmyer using the people of "Tremé" to engage in a 10-hour dialogue about artistic integrity versus the promise of commercial success.
The new season picks up 25 months after Katrina. Money has begun to pour back into New Orleans — and with it, temptation and even more corruption. We get a good view of the latter through contractor Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a carpetbagger who seems to genuinely enjoy the city, and not just for the ample opportunity for profit.
But the temptation appears in many forms, as several characters — including Janette (Kim Dickens), Annie, and Albert's trumpeter son Delmond (Rob Brown) — get lucrative offers that sound too good to be true, and usually are. There is money, and there is doing what you love the way you want to do it, and the opportunities to have both at once are few and far between.
When Delmond tries to put off a suggestion of doing a European tour for his new album, his manager tells him that New Orleans is "a small stage with a low ceiling," and "If you stay in New Orleans, you're making a choice."
That Simon and Overmyer are making this one of the key themes of the new season suggests they have also made their choice. They figured out who they were, what they were good at and what they wanted to do, and they've done it, for three seasons (and hopefully one more). That it hasn't been a huge success is unfortunate but also unsurprising. HBO likes being in business with David Simon because they like being associated with the quality of his shows, and, I assume, what they stand for. You would hope everyone could find a way to make a fourth season work, but if it doesn't, I don't expect this creative team's next project to be a romantic comedy starring Channing Tatum and Emma Stone.
Near the end of the season, cop Terry Colson (David Morse, making stoicism its own artform), feeling like the last honest man in a crooked department, asks Toni, "When the rest of the world just doesn't give a fuck, what is it that actually helps?"
Without missing a beat, Toni says, "Lasting. You gotta outlast the bastards."
"Tremé" has lasted for three unlikely seasons already. All it needs is one more. It's great enough to deserve it.
NOTE: As I mentioned in my fall TV preview, I don't think I'll be doing long episode reviews for "Tremé" this season. As you can tell from this review, it's not that I like the show any less, but simply a matter of both time management and a recognition that this is a series that's not ideal for the format. I'll still be doing weekly posts to allow for discussion of each episodes, but before the finale, they'll likely be brief, touching on one or two points I found particularly notable in that hour.