A New Orleans tradition was renewed Sunday night when people gathered in the back room at Buffa’s to watch the HBO drama Treme and hear one of the featured artists from the show. Guitarist Alex McMurray was Sunday night’s host, performing with pianist Bill Malchow, and he provided the audience of familiar HBO regulars like Tom McDermott and numerous on-screen extras with an appropriately humorous accompaniment to the episode. He explained that his band, the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, wrote this week’s opening music. “It’s the first piece of music you hear at the beginning of the show,” he noted, “although we don’t appear in the show. They asked me to write an arrangement of Huey Long’s theme song, ‘Every Man A King’.” The song was played by DJ Davis as the backdrop to Election Day 2007.
Treme started airing while the wounds from the Katrina flood were still fresh. The series at that point was a kind of docudrama covering events that had taken place so recently that, to those of us who’d lived through the destruction of the city, the show had the quality of a dream in which familiar places and faces are woven into a new story line. As we follow the narrative over the years, and the fictional version of Treme moves further away from the historical reality it translates, the show takes on new perspective. Its fourth and final season opens with Obama’s presidential victory and how it was received on the streets of New Orleans.
Five years later that night feels like a really long time ago, the first time I’ve had the feeling watching Treme that the events on the screen were not a reflection of the recent past. The characters pause to reflect on the larger meaning of electing a black president. Chief Albert Lambreaux argues gruffly with his children that it won’t change anything, yet later in the episode he’s on line at the voting booth and you can feel the transformational emotion overcome him as he pulls the lever. Many of my black friends uttered the line “I never thought I’d live to see the day…” after the historic event, but Lambreaux, deep in the throes of his battle with cancer, literally lives out that line. His deep friendship/romance with LaDonna Batiste-Williams, one of my favorite story lines from season three, blossoms into its tragically beautiful denoument as Treme moves towards resolution.
The series was originally scripted for five seasons and a narrative arc that made sense in the real time between 2005 and 2010, when the Saints won the Super Bowl and the BP oil spill proved that the flood was only the beginning of our era of disaster. Collapsing 20-something episodes of narrative arc into five hours means a lot of that story gets lost and a lot of plot lines are forced to a premature conclusion. It’s a sad reality but one that does not lessen the impact of Treme‘s premise, and in a strange kind of way it forces the writers to wrap things up with a flourish that includes some surprise endings, some inevitabilities and some ironic moments in which key plot lines are resolved in the fictional reality only to be proven as frustratingly elusive as ever in the real world.
The tragedy is offset by high comedy. The puckish Davis McAlary hits the skids with his terrible rock opera and a pathetic performance of “I Quit.” Cheeky Blakk suggests he quit in earnest. Davis Rogan, the “Real Davis” who Steve Zahn’s character is based on, is in McAlary’s band and enjoys the irony of berating his fictional boss.
McMurray found extra ammunition for his performance in that story line. After the show, he ended his live presentation by singing a song. “If You Can’t Make It Here,” which he proposed as the new slogan for New Orleans: “If you can’t make it here, you better not leave.” As he delivered the sing-along chorus, McMurray shouted “That means you, Davis!”
— John Swenson