Thursday, May 6, 2010

Won't Bow, Don't Know How

I always chuckle to myself when I hear people praising Glee simply for being a TV musical. Sure, such shows are rare, but they did exist prior to the birth of American Idol's love child. For example, Glee's other, illegitimate parent: High School Musical. That franchise could hardly be described as overlooked, but people still seem to forget that it got to the well first. Meanwhile, the honor of being both ahead of Glee and often overlooked goes to HBO's Flight of the Conchords. It was infinitely more creative and incisive than Glee will ever be. Flight of the Conchords recently came to a (not altogether premature) end, but it still proved that TV musicals do not have to be glossy, vapid, teen-centric dreck.

The best argument for that point yet, however, is HBO's most recent premiere: Treme.

Set in late 2005 New Orleans, this series takes place in the gaping wounds created by Hurricane Katrina. It follows nearly a dozen main characters as they struggle to rebuild – or struggle to decide if they should rebuild – their lives. They occasionally cross paths, but they have few things in common. All that really ties them together is the city: its food, its politics, its ancestry and, of course, its music.

It would have been easy for creators, Eric Overmyer and David Simon to make this series a downer and a polemic. Yet they understand that any peoples' collective horror results in something far more complex than anger and grief.

They also understand that New Orleans traditionally does not cleave to such emotions. That is why the main thread of the series' premiere is such a brilliant introduction. It is a funeral. It is also one of countless funerals that these characters will be attending in the coming weeks. Yet this one gets the same treatment that any would: A full band. First, the band performs a brief dirge – music conveying loss the way only it can. Second, anything but a dirge – the grief is abandoned for an upbeat jazz procession through the neighborhood in which nearly every citizen participates.

I knew very little about the city (or its music) before watching this 80 minute episode, but once I finished it, I understood something that would be impossible to convey so effectively with mere exposition: Something new and beautiful would come from all of this loss. It's just a matter of how and when.

That is not to say that this show does not direct anger where it is due. Taken as a whole, one could say that the series is seething. Creighton (John Goodman) seems intent on making a career out of cursing at people until justice is served, and Davis (Steve Zahn) tends to blame his comical misfortune on broad social injustices. Overall, however, the show is far less direct in its criticism of New Orleans' abandonment by the country at large, preferring to couch it in the details of the characters' lives. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the show's opening titles, where upbeat music plays over scenes of mold-ridden walls and waterlogged photos:

This borderline-irrational resilience in the face of complete devastation is what drives many of the characters. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) fights to keep her roofless tavern open, despite the fact that she now lives hours away and her roofer keeps conning her. Janette (Kim Dickens) refuses to close her restaurant, even when faulty gas lines make it impossible to heat food properly. Albert (Clarke Peters) is sleeping on the floor of a dusty bar, so that he can slowly reassemble his tribe of Mardi Gras performers in time for the holiday.

The show's subtlety is augmented by its authenticity. According to this Time article, Treme is shot entirely on location in New Orleans. When one watches the show, this fact is more depressing than anything else; much of the damage remains five years later. Yet any attempts to manufacture this level of destruction would have rung decidedly false. The reality of the city brings horror, as well as hope, through the details: There are empty streets filled with empty houses and only the sounds of distant dogs and occasional military flyovers, yes, but this makes the sight of a pedestrian (particularly a dancing one) all the more powerful.

Of course, this brings us back to the one aspect that could never, ever have been faked and which Treme goes to considerable lengths to present honestly: The music. A number of the series' main cast members are musicians in their own right, but the series is filled with fantastic cameos by local jazz musicians as well as more widely known stars. Since just about every character is a musician and/or a music lover, much time is spent within real New Orleans jazz holes, listening to real New Orleans jazz. Again, I know nothing about music, so I cannot elaborate on this, but god damn is the music in this show good. While some of it is in the background, the filmmakers rarely pass up an opportunity to let the plot momentarily slip away, let the camera wander through the crowded club, and let the music take over.

While the hard plot may slip away in these moments, the show's themes do not. Just like with the funeral march, the music's context within the show introduces to the viewer to the emotions motivating the music, as the viewer is being introduced to the music itself. This is the way musicals are supposed to work, but when they are as raw as this one, it elevates the genre. So, while Glee momentarily enjoys its high profile and its unfounded praise as resurrector of the TV musical, I will be savoring every moment of Treme – not because it is just any musical TV series, but because it is shaping up to be a truly excellent one.

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