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New Orleans has long been described as an American melting pot of many races and cultures. But that phrase connotes a blending together—a smooth, if rich, fondue. In the case of the Crescent City, it’s more of a gumbo with discrete ingredients and flavors that stay distinct despite decades of simmering together. One of our favorite restaurants in the French Quarter had an Asian menu with local ingredients. Crawfish lo mein, for example, and stir-fried boudin sausage. (Of course, the food was also served by lap-dancing drag queens, but that’s another story.) The restaurant is long gone.

That was before Hurricane Katrina.

In our lifetime, pretty much any story about New Orleans can be categorized as Before or After Katrina. And I would argue, passionately, that the best stories about post-Katrina New Orleans have been told by HBO in the network’s masterpiece miniseries, Treme.

Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, was one of our nation’s all-time deadliest natural disasters, tragically exacerbated when the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee system failed (as predicted). At least 1,833 people died, and property damages were estimated at $81 billion. News coverage was horrific and constant. But it was also abstract and strangely depersonalized. We saw thousands of people stranded on rooftops or huddled in the Super Dome and the Convention Center. The sheer volume of suffering was hard to absorb. It was nearly impossible to realize that each face represented an individual story.

That’s what makes Treme so powerful.

When the drama premiered in 2010, it was met with critical acclaim by the likes of The New York Times and Salon. Local response, perhaps a truer test, was also wildly enthusiastic. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune summed it up this way: Treme was “the screen depiction that New Orleans deserves, has always desired, but has been denied.”

The “Big Easy” struggles under misconceptions, created by Hollywood in part and also brought back by conventioneers who don’t go farther afield than Bourbon Street. The faubourg (loosely translated, neighborhood) Tremé, which lies north of the French Quarter, is a prime example of the NOLA that most tourists miss. The Tremé is America’s oldest black neighborhood, inhabited by the city’s free people of color and by slaves who bought their freedom. It’s the birthplace of second-lining and jazz; the home of Congo Square and the infamous red light district Storyville. It was—and remains—a fertile center of music, culture and cuisine; and it’s a fitting locale for the series.

Treme is an ensemble piece. About a dozen different story lines run through it, featuring musicians, chefs, police, post-storm real estate developers (carpetbaggers), teachers, local business owners. There’s no real star except the city itself. (John Goodman headlined the show in its first and second seasons, until his character, a professor and blogger suffering from post-storm depression, committed suicide.)

The fourth and final season begins on election eve, 2008, 38 months after Katrina. Barack Obama’s platform of “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes, We Can” had deeper meaning to that so-called “chocolate city” than to other parts of the country. And the season represents great change for many key characters. Big Chief Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), the show’s noble patriarch and a famed Mardi Gras Indian, has survived leukemia. Disillusioned NOPD detective Colson (David Morse in his best role since St. Elsewhere) is walking a fine line between uncovering corruption and risking his life. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), the hustling trombonist, has become a teacher, in essence letting his own ambitions slide in order to pass the passion on to a new generation. So much of Treme revolves around New Orleans’ legendary music scene.

“Music lives where it lives, bro,” Steve Zahn, as colorful DJ Davis McAlary, reminds us. 

Nearly 300 years after it was settled, New Orleans is still a city of immigrants, whether it’s a busker from Amsterdam, fishermen from southeast Asia, or Mexicans who arrived to take many of the lower paying jobs when the city’s displaced African Americans didn’t (in most cases, couldn’t) return. Treme tells their stories too.

But this is Women’s Voices for Change, and it’s the women of Treme whose stories are most powerful for me. (I already bemoaned two Emmy Award snubs back in 2011 here.) The tremendous Khandi Alexander plays Ladonna Batiste-Williams. She is the show’s ultimate survivor, having lived through not just the hurricane, but a brutal rape followed by an equally brutal violation by the city’s deeply dysfunctional judicial system. At the end of season three, we watched in horror as her beloved bar in the Treme, Gigi’s Lounge, was burned down. What is Ladonna doing as season four opens? Rebuilding.

Another astounding performance is Melissa Leo as Toni Bernette, civil rights attorney, widowed mother, resilient New Orleanian (but that’s redundant, isn’t it?). Three years after the hurricane, she’s still trying to find justice for the city’s many victims—even when doing so creates real danger for herself and her daughter.

And, in Treme, Alexander and Leo are joined by a diverse troupe of equally talented younger women. Familiar movie actress Kim Dickens is talented chef and restaurateur Janette Desautel. A brilliant young violinist, Lucia Miccarelli, plays up-and-coming musician Annie. Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a local poet featured in Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, is Batiste’s current girlfriend Desiree. And Bernette’s teenage daughter is portrayed by the compelling India Ennenga.

In the spring of 2006, my family and I went down to volunteer at a relief station in the New Orleans suburb of Aribe. Several months after the storm, there were still signs of it everywhere. Boarded up businesses, leveled neighborhoods, blue tarp roofs, cryptic symbols spray-painted by rescue workers on the facades of flooded homes. One utility box off of Decatur Street in the Quarter had the most fitting piece of graffiti: “Came hell and high water.”

Treme doesn’t shy away from Katrina’s hellish aftermath, but what stays with you most is the courage and conviction of the people who had to rebuild their lives as well as their city.

Treme returned to HBO this month for a limited 5-episode finale season. You can catch up on the first three seasons via DVD, Netflix or HBO on demand. In case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend it.

 

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