TV Review: Treme, Season 4 Premiere

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Treme is a fascinating show…and not for all the right reasons.

The show, created by the geniuses behind The Wire, looks at the complex tapestry that is New Orleans, post-Katrina. It’s an examination of the triumph and tragedy, the miracles and the malice, the graft and greed, the rebirth and revitalization, that came once the levee waters had receded. It delves into all facets of N’awlins life — politics, crime, land development and housing rehabilitation, the culinary scene and of course, the music.

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Then you look at the cast — Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, longtime character actors Steve Zahn and David Morse, Wire alum Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce, plus cameos from the biggest and best musicians from the New Orleans scene, and you marvel at the talent that will be bringing this cultural examination to life.

On paper this sounds like a show that should be on par with its Baltimore-based predecessor — a gritty and unflinching television program that is one part social commentary and one part intriguing drama.

Yet, for some reason, Treme fails to really engage the audience.

Last season I dove into Treme head first, a show I had long been intrigued by and I gave it a glowing review. However, about four episodes into the season, I was done. I had lost all interest in the show. Sure, the acting was solid and the music was fantastic — but I could really care less about 90% of what was happening in the show. I had no emotional investment in the characters (despite the performance) or the story lines and soon other shows like Homeland and a returning Walking Dead took my attention away from Treme.

However, I decided to tune in for the premiere of the series’ final season to see if things had improve. Sadly, not much has changed.

The biggest problem with Treme is that it’s too ambitious for its own good. The Wire tackled numerous cultural aspects of Baltimore in its run, but it was carefully layered each season and in some way, it all made sense to as why these stories connected. Treme just throws everything at you at once. Characters and stories aren’t given enough screen time to breathe and develop as the series is hellbent on cramming everything into a 60 minute or so episode.

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If the show had decided to focus on the music of New Orleans and then branch out to into the personal lives of those in the scene and how external conflict (redevelopment, crime, etc.) affected their lives, I think this show would be a lot better. Instead, it tries to tackle every issue all at once. If they eliminated story lines and characters, the show would run a lot smoother. No offense to the talented Melissa Leo, but her civil right activist/attorney is an anchor around the show’s neck. In tonight’s premiere they completely forced another police brutality storyline into the series to give her character something to do. Her storyline last season was so agonizingly slow that I cringed as soon as I saw her character near the police station. Also, as much as food is important to New Orleans, the culinary storyline just doesn’t grab my interest either. The actors in this world just bore me to tears and the story just has no bite to it.

Treme shines when it’s focused on horn player Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) and DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) two wayward musical souls who haunt the clubs and music scene of The Big Easy. The two characters have an entertaining air about them but they aren’t just comic relief — they embody a spirit and lifestyle of this city. If these two dominated the screen and then the rest was colored in with the other stories, it’d be golden. I found their respective story lines — Antoine dealing with his students’ issues while also trying to maintain a foot in the music world and Davis’ continued musical odyssey to be totally engrossing, but sadly underutilized.

One part of last night’s premiere that I totally dug is a calling card of the series — the live musical performance. Every episode some act from the scene is showcased for an extended performance. Tonight, it was the fantastic Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue who deliver a beautifully fat, funky, soul shaking funk/jazz hybrid that is utterly infectious. The entire episode could’ve been documenting the band in concert and it probably would’ve been better than the actual episode itself.

Treme had all the potential in the world to be a definitive HBO series and this reviewer desperately wants to love the show. However, eyes were definitely too big for stomachs and instead of making this a tight, focused show that would resonate with audiences as something masterful, it’s an unfocused mess that will ultimately will be forgotten. At its core, Treme is a solid show, one that if you have the patience, you can really enjoy it. Otherwise, dig into The Wire and see how a multi-layered, ensemble television show is supposed to be.

Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites