Review: HBO's 'Treme' returns for abbreviated but joyous fourth and final season
When it was announced that HBO had commissioned a fourth and final season of the New Orleans musical drama "Tremé" for a lump sum representing a fraction of previous seasons' budgets, co-creator David Simon said he appreciated HBO allowing he and partner Eric Overmyer to bring their nichiest of niche shows to its conclusion.
"It's half a loaf," he said, adding, "
We'll do the best we can with the story arcs and try to conclude 'Tremé' in a resonant way."
Simon and Overmyer took their half a loaf and essentially made half a season. Starting Sunday night at 9, there will be five episodes instead of the usual 10 or 11 of previous years. Most of the show's impressive cast appears throughout the abbreviated season, but some actors only pop up sporadically.
Even for a show with as casual an interest in plot as "Tremé" has always been, significantly storytelling decisions had to be made. Over the course of any one episode of the series, or a collection of episodes, not much seems to happen, when in fact "Tremé" covers a lot of ground in telling the stories of both its characters and of the city of New Orleans in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina.
Michiel Huisman's Sonny, for instance, began the series as a junkie busker surviving on (while enormously resenting) the talent of his mousy violinist partner Annie (Lucia Micarelli). Later, he tried to both stay sober and become a more professional musician, but butted up against the limits of his ability and the temptations offered by that world. When last we left him in season 3, he had all but left music behind, gone back on the wagon and married into the family of his new boss, a Vietnamese shrimp boat captain. It takes a while to transition from one point to the next and to the next — just as it does for every other character on the show — and the journey is richer for those with the patience to stay on it, but a lot more occurs than you realize at first.
And beyond the character arcs, the show has been loaded with real stories from the city, post-Katrina, sometimes with the real individuals — often musicians or chefs, but also a shady politician or two — playing themselves
Trying to squeeze the normal level of incident into a five-episode season would have required Simon and Overmyer to speed up the show's leisurely pace — which often involves stopping the action altogether so we can watch a great jazz, blues or country band perform — until "Tremé" wasn't "Tremé" any more.
Instead, the creators appear to have made the understandable decision to focus more on the characters than the city that provides them with home and purpose.
It's not that the series ceases to deal with the many problems, and pleasures, of life in New Orleans. Crusading attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) is still filing civil rights lawsuits against everyone in sight, veteran cop Terry Colson (David Morse) is still railing against the corrupt department he works for, trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is still enduring bureaucratic nightmares with the afterschool band program he runs, and professional irritant Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) still has plenty to rant about.
More often than not, though, that material serves as a backdrop to providing proper closure to the stories of these richly-drawn characters who served as our eyes and ears in the Crescent City. As much as we might love to see Terry clean up the NOPD, we know that a fictional character — especially one on a show co-created by the guy who made "The Wire" — isn't going to accomplish much against a real-life institution, and therefore the big question becomes whether his crusade will force him to leave town, and the happy relationship he has with Toni. Antoine tries to help the students in his charge, but his arc for this mini-season ultimately has more to do with the sons he had with ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander).
Simon's shows — this, "The Wire," "Generation Kill," "The Corner" — have always tried to balance the dramatic with the didactic. He understands that if he want to get the viewers to devour the ideological broccoli he's serving about the War on Drugs, the invasion of Iraq, political mismanagement of Katrina, etc., he has to first entice them with something tastier. With "The Wire," it was the cat-and-mouse structure of a police investigation and a wide array of enormously colorful characters. With "Tremé," it's the characters, the music and the incredibly detailed sense of atmosphere. And though he and Overmyer could have turned this mini-season into one final lesson about how messed-up things are in this treasure of an American city(*), they ultimately sided with the reason the select few of us came to, and stayed with, this beautiful but idiosyncratic series: the characters, and their stories.
(*) Because the series has more or less covered consecutive years — the final season starts on Election Day 2008 and ends after Mardi Gras 2009 — the narrative stops about a year before the Saints' Super Bowl victory that media pundits claimed healed the city once and for all, and before the BP oil spill gave the region one more disaster it didn't need. Had "Tremé" been more popular, I would have liked to see a fifth season touch on both of those, but it ultimately works to the benefit of these episodes that they take place during a relatively quiet stretch of time for the city.
So we see Annie on the next step of her journey towards mainstream success, and all the compromises she has to make along the way. We check in with trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), who remains reluctant to leave town after last year's cancer diagnosis for his Mardi Gras Indian chief father Albert (Clarke Peters, whose performance remains a fantastic study in the intersection between nobility and stubbornness). We see Davis struggle with the horror of turning 40, and his ex-girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens) try to open a new restaurant after a terrible experience with a corporate partner. We even get a little bit of art imitating life, as Antoine helps a movie actor learn to fake playing the trombone, just as Pierce himself does every episode.
Without giving too much away about what happens, parts of the final season are gut-wrenchingly sad, and a few others headache-inducing in their sense of sociological futility, but for the most part, it's a far more optimistic coda to the series than I might have expected. On "The Wire," the characters we cared about the most tended to suffer the worst; "Tremé" doesn't give everyone a happy ending with a pretty bow tied around it, but it does conclude with a sense of hopefulness for nearly all of its remaining characters. Even the amoral Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), who arrived in season 2 to profit off of the damaged city, is allowed a few generous moments before the end.
Because they're inserting fictional characters into a very real city with very real problems, Simon and Overmyer have always been limited in how much can actually happen. There are several moments in the final season where characters like Toni and Davis vent about all the causes they've fought for, and how little has changed as a result. Though the final season doesn't end with puppies and rainbows, it does play out as if the creators (plus producer George Pelecanos, who wrote or co-wrote several of the final episodes), realizing they couldn't fix the city, decided to fix the people they placed in it.
There are times where the five episodes feel a bit more aimless than usual — as if they're existing as the preamble to a second half of a full loaf that HBO couldn't provide — but for the most part, it's a pleasure to take one final trip down to the "Tremé," to hear the music, to luxuriate in the sights and sounds, to hear Lucia Micarelli play the violin, to watch Khandi Alexander stare murderously at the latest fool to get in LaDonna's way, to enjoy Steve Zahn perfectly walking the knife edge between annoying and hilarious, and to marvel at the resplendent charms of Wendell Pierce. It's a series that has provided abundant joy (and some heartbreak) over the previous three years, and one I'm glad to see conclude, even in this compromised fashion.
A half a loaf is better than none at all. When it's baked by David Simon, Eric Overmyer and George Pelecanos, it's better than most people's full loaf.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: At the start of season 4, I came to the conclusion that "Tremé" is a show best talked about at length at the beginning and the end, so the approach will be the same this year: short posts each week to provide a place for discussion, followed (depending on how much the holidays get in the way) by something longer for the series finale.