My Struggle with Treme, Season 4 Episode 1 “Yes We Can Can”

I was over-the-moon-excited for the Season 4 premiere of Treme, “Yes We Can Can”. From its first episode Treme has been my favorite show on Television. I stuck with it through its ups and downs because I fell in love with the community of people David Simon and Eric Overmyer created. They are characters so well developed and lived in that they stick to your brain. It’s been too long since we left them in Season 3 and I miss these folks.  I wanted to know what they’ve been up to and what they have left to do. I was sure of two things, I was either going to love it or hate it. I wanted to love the episode. I had planned write some sort of amazed analysis that would do the show, the characters and the city of New Orleans justice in a few hundred well-chosen words. Either that or seethe with righteous indignation that the writers had got everything wrong.  They had pulled the cloth out from under Seasons 1-3’s perfectly set table. I was sure that once I saw the episode everything would come together and writing this entry would be a breeze. So I watched and I waited and I didn’t feel very much. I told myself that unpacking an episode of Treme is a difficult task. Unpacking the first episode of the season is even trickier. The show is a sprawling and fascinating study of the city of New Orleans and the people who call it home. It can’t be judged by conventional means and it can’t be rushed. I’d just have to watch it again until the pieces fall into place. I did and they didn’t. After 3.5 viewings I still feel . . . meh?!

I don’t understand it. What am I not getting? How could it be possible that my favorite television show has left me feeling so detached and uninspired?  After the train wreck that Homeland is intent on becoming this season this can’t be happening with my beloved Treme! Or worse am I one of those people who just doesn’t “get it”? I’m still not sure.

I sat down to write about “Yes We Can Can” dozens of times this week. Sure I could have written about something else but I’m stubborn and I refuse to give up on my show. So here I sit the morning that this entry is due with a pile of notes and a lack of direction. Upon an attempt at one last viewing I discovered that my “blah” attitude can best be summed up in the new opening theme.

It is very similar to the original to be sure. It is made up of a string of images (not directly attached to the characters on the show) set to the same catchy tune (“The Treme Song” by John Boutté). As similar as it may be; the opening doesn’t pack the emotional wallop that the original does. There is too much going on. We jump from shots of brightly painted classrooms, to politicians, candle light vigils, Mardi Gras Indians and a bunch of stuff in between. The pictures are nice but they don’t flow together to make a cohesive whole, a lot  like this episode. What I mean is, sure it is fun to see a celebrity Chef thrown into the mix while Jeannette is struggling to rebuild her restaurant, however, it does nothing to advance the story or tell us anything we don’t already know about her character. It feels thrown in (a lot like the images that flash before us in the opening).

Sure, I enjoy seeing Desiree (the amazing Phyllis LeBlanc) glow after Antoine leers after the musicians at the polling station, but we aren’t given much more to latch on to for her character. The episode seems more interested telling us how Antoine has been thrust into larger mentor-ship role now that he is in charge of the school band. His sudden interest in students with boyfriends and students with the clap is never fleshed out. It’s all on the surface and doesn’t make much of an impact. None of this is terrible, but it’s not memorable either. In fact the most memorable part of this story line for me is Desiree’s line reading of “I don’t think ya can. No” after Antoine asks if he can have salt at the dinner table. In six words Phyllis LeBlanc demonstrates the depth and hierarchy of their relationship.

A larger problem I had with the episode is how it dealt with my former favorite pairing of LaDonna and Albert. In the time that has passed since Season 3 they have become romantically involved. It is never explained how. All of the amazing chemistry of their friendship has been watered down. Their scenes are played so close together that it is impossible to see the sparks fly between them. It is pretty to look at but again, doesn’t do anything for me emotionally.

Another issue I have with the new opening is it that the images can be easily categorized into “good” and “bad”. Mardis Gras Indians: Good.  Shifty looking politicians: Bad. The same can be said about how some of the characters are developing. A glaring example is the arc of Nelson Hidalgo (John Seda). I’ve always had issues with the character but he has become more cartoonish as the show goes on. He kind of likes New Orleans but he likes money a whole lot more. He will do anything to get as much of it as possible. I found it completely implausible that Davis would take the time to show Nelson the ins and outs of New Orleans culture, spouting wisdom like, “music lives where it lives, you don’t fuck with that.” The show is telling us instead of showing us how great the club scene in New Orleans is. Nothing we are being told can compare to the brilliant musical performance from Shorty that is being interrupted by this tiresome exposition.

This exposition achieves the opposite of what the seasons before and the original opening sequence has been able to. What I love about the original opening is how it allows the viewer to attach their own meaning to the images flashing across the screen. It doesn’t cram meaning down our throats. Family photographs, children playing, children crying, damaged homes are filtered with dots of mold and rot. We see the decay creeping through the hope or hope struggling through the decay.

Similarly, there are some really bright moments in “Yes We Can Can.” Highlights for me included Davis unable to leave his car because he is so entranced with the music coming out of his stereo.  Or Sophia home after winter break realizing that her mother and Terry are in a relationship. Her words to them, “You look comfy” are a prime example of how Treme can use beautiful restraint to paint a picture of Sophia’s growth and healing after her father’s suicide instead of hitting us over the head with it.

So there we are. There was some good, some bad and some meh. Maybe these fancily shot and colorful images will mean more as the season goes on. Maybe I just have to wait it out to let Simon and Overmyer wrap up their story on their own terms. Or maybe I’m just not getting it. I refuse to give up now, though.

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