News Column

Philadelphia Daily News Ellen Gray column

November 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 29----TREME: 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

Old disasters don't die, they just fade from the headlines.

The network camera crews leave town, cable news moves on to the next horror and the people left behind adjust -- or don't -- to a new normal.

It requires a very particular vision to see as much drama in the aftermath as in the event itself, but that's what David Simon ("The Wire") and Eric Overmyer have brought to their post-Katrina series "Treme," which begins its fourth and final season Sunday on HBO.

In just five December episodes covering the period from President Obama's 2008 election to 2009 Mardi Gras, "Treme" bids a fond and tuneful farewell to characters a few of us have come to love and to storylines that went deeply enough into the challenges of rebuilding lives in New Orleans to be considered as much journalism as TV drama.

That probably didn't help much in attracting an audience, circulation being down pretty much all over, but I'm hoping that like "The Wire," which also employed memorable characters to explore dysfunctional systems, "Treme" will one day find new fans willing to give it the time it deserves.

In the meantime, here are a few of the things I'll miss about "Treme":

--Its astonishing cast, including (but not limited to) Khandi Alexander, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, Philly's David Morse, Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce.

--Its willingness to take its time, even when producers couldn't be sure, season to season, that time wasn't up.

If we can have a slow-food movement, can't we get a little momentum behind slow TV? I get as much of a kick as anyone out of shows like Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" that burn through plot as if the scripts themselves were on fire, but there's something to be said for letting things simmer, too.

And speaking of simmer . . .

--The restaurant scene.

There's almost nothing served in a New Orleans restaurant I should even sniff, but I've savored every minute of the journey of Janette Desautel (Dickens) from struggling restaurateur to celebrity chef (and maybe back again). And thanks, probably, to the seasoning of "Treme" writer Anthony Bourdain, I've learned enough about owning and running a restaurant to be grateful I cook only for family and friends.

--The music scene.

Simon packed the show with music, recently telling Variety that he's particularly proud that "we managed to deliver $3.5 million in songwriters and performance fees to the music community," and that alone would have been enough to give the series a unique sense of place. But in delving as deep into the business side as it did with restaurants, "Treme" also made the music much more than a soundtrack.

--Its stubbornness.

Another show, faced with the possibility of not getting enough time to tell its story, might have opted to keep John Goodman's character alive past the first season (and maybe killed off Steve Zahn's heroically annoying one to what I'd like to think would have been popular demand).

It might have introduced fewer characters so we could focus better on the ones we already had.

It might have devoted more time to crime (although I'd argue that the crime it did deal with packed a greater punch for not being the whole point of the show).

And, of course, it might have chosen a title that wasn't the French-derived name of a neighborhood that even people in New Orleans sometimes pronounce differently and that most people outside the city still think rhymes with "dream."

But that wouldn't have been "Treme." Much less tre-MAY.

Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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