Story potential of Hurricane Katrina squandered in first season of Treme





Treme Season One (HBO-DVD) could’ve been worse and should’ve been better. The first season, anyway.

Even with Khandi Alexander (The Corner, NewsRadio, Sugar Hill) Wendell Pierce (The Wire, B.B. King and I) and Clarke Peters (The Wire, Legacy) starring.

Treme is filmed as documentation of and in homage to those in New Orleans who did and did not survive the enduring tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It just doesn’t have enough story to it, which is ironic. For that there is a wealth of killer potential here, the dramatic circumstance, the power of an important story, is squandered.

The scripts are skimpy, sketched. Every other scene is padded with backdrop — a bandstand, studio session or sidewalk jam of men (only one female musician featured in ten episodes) playing and singing New Orleans-style music. Writers do manage to sandwich in a vague chronicle of what cost the hurricane took in its savaging of so many lives.

Khandi Alexander (pictured above), of course, is the top drawing card. She delighted audiences as NewsRadio‘s wry, dry and irascible — not to mention sexy — newscaster Catherine Duke. And in The Corner she was riveting as tragic wreck of a woman Fran Boyd, trapped in her addiction to crack cocaine. Here, she plays LaDonna Batiste-Williams, the owner/operator of a modest, neighborhood bar, trying to find her kid brother. He got locked up during one of the many police sweeps that hauled off looters and bystanders alike and is now missing in the criminal justice system.

Alexander doesn’t really get to brandish the saucy quality that made her such a hit in NewsRadio or the seething, brittle strength she showcased in The Corner. It’s a fairly subdued character that unfortunately doesn’t spend enough time on-screen to become all that interesting.

Alexander does provide consistently intriguing presence. You cut out half the music, develop her character and, of course, strengthen the plot, and it could prove to be quite a winning turn for the wonderfully gifted actor.

Wendell Pierce, playing blues great B.B. King this year in B.B. King and I, was great in The Wire as world-weary Detective Bunk Moreland. Here, he’s trombonist Antoine Batiste, a decent enough guy who picks up enough gigs to stay in the game but can’t bag that big one which will put him regularly on his feet.

Accordingly, he also has to hear his wife’s mouth about not bringing home enough bacon. And can’t really argue when she demands, “Go get a job, dammit. A job job!” As with Khandi Alexander, you don’t have a chance to really get into the character because Wendell Pierce doesn’t have the opportunity to actually sink his teeth into it.

Clarke Peters, too, was marvelous in The Wire as Detective Lester Freamon, a shrewd fellow of the firm conviction that bending the law to catch crooks who break it is a perfectly acceptable means to an honorable end. In Treme, he’s fine as Albert “Big Chief” Lambrea, returning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to find his home so badly damaged he has to repair it nearly from the ground up. Which, implacably, is just what he sets about the business of doing. Peters, with understated grace, manages to make the most of a minimally drawn character.

One can only hope and pray that in subsequent seasons the directors stopped playing music long enough for something to happen. A subject this important certainly deserves to be treated as a significant drama, not as the half-hearted filler between musical numbers that is the first season of Treme.