Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” I expect to on Sept. 18.

There are many fine dramas and skilled actresses nominated for Emmy Awards this year. But, no matter which worthy candidates win, I already know I’m going to be disappointed. Because my favorite show, HBO’s Treme, has been overlooked. Again.

In fairness, Treme did get nods in two categories last year: Best Directing of a Drama Series for its pilot episode and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. But it didn’t win for either. This year, sadly, the show didn’t receive a single nomination.

Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans neighborhood, Treme weaves together a richly textured tapestry of the city’s survivors. From street musicians, barkeepers and educators to developers, city council members and public defenders. The writing is just extraordinary, as is the attention to detail both historical and cultural. And the music? Every episode sweeps you away to the Crescent City and its singular mélange of funk and blues and jazz funerals.

The ensemble cast includes several people who should have been considered for Emmys. But two actresses in particular stand out for me: Khandi Alexander and Melissa Leo.

Image: HBO

As LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Alexander (left, in character) projects an intense nobility that is all the more heroic in a city that is still, metaphorically, very much underwater. She is struggling to keep her father’s bar, Gigi’s Place, open despite a leaking roof, a city infrastructure in shambles, and the perpetual disapproval of her family. Alexander’s performance last year was strong, but this past season it was transcendent.

The victim of a horrific violent crime, LaDonna caves into herself, unable to function and unwilling to share the details of her assault with her concerned husband. In an achingly realistic twist, when her husband does find out that she has been gang raped, he turns on her. (Through another fine bit of acting, Lance E. Nicholls as her husband is able to show how, even as he’s outwardly blaming LaDonna, he is torn up with rage and fear and a sense of impotence.) As the season progressed, I wondered how the story could possible resolve in a way that wouldn’t break my heart. But, remarkably it did. LaDonna’s attackers are apprehended but through a courthouse clerical error, they’re released. When LaDonna sees one of them in the neighborhood, she is able to overcome a paralyzing panic attack to call the police and insist they re-arrest him. Having found her strength again, she turns the table on her attacker. She verbally — and literally — kicks the hell out of him. Although it doesn’t undo what’s been done to her, the audience can’t help but rejoice.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi

Melissa Leo suddenly seems to be lauded for every new role she takes on (and she is nominated for an Emmy this year for another HBO property, Mildred Pierce). In Treme, Leo plays another strong New Orleans woman, dealing with different challenges. Her character (right), Antoinette “Toni” Bernette, is a liberal lawyer who refuses to accept the city’s excuses (and cover-ups) as it rides roughshod over the rights of its citizens. And like Alexander, she surpassed her own stellar acting as her character developed in the show’s second season.

Toni’s husband, played last year by New Orleans real-life poster boy John Goodman, has committed suicide and his widow’s reaction (like Leo’s portrayal of it) is a revelation. Abruptly swallowing her grief, Toni is furious that her husband “just quit.” She moves forward, determined to continue the work that has to be done and equally determined that her teenaged daughter believe her dad’s death was an accident. When the daughter, played by talented young India Ennenga, starts acting out, Toni is barely able to hold it together. But she somehow does. Leo’s nuanced performance provides a sensitive character study that mirrors the struggles of the city itself.

When the Emmy nominations were announced, and I realized that Treme was snubbed, I was puzzled. Outstanding, extraordinary, remarkable … I’m running out of superlative adjectives, but the show is everything I’ve already said and more. Yet unlike HBO’s earlier groundbreaking drama, The Sopranos, Treme takes some work. Somehow the mafia is already in our realm of filmic understanding (thank you, Godfather parts one, two and three). Treme isn’t passive TV entertainment. You have to put in some effort to understand the intertwining stories that mirror the various strata of the city’s music culture, neighborhoods, racial mix and creole cuisine. But it’s well worth it.

You can’t really say that Treme is an acquired taste. Like the Big Easy itself, people either love it or hate it. It is often gritty and violent. But, it is often buoyant and artistic. It is deeply sensual. Most of all, I think the series confirms whatever the viewer already believes about the place, its people and culture. A one-of-a-kind treasure that needs to be preserved. Or a depraved adult playground that doesn’t deserve to be rebuilt.

But no matter which side of the debate you stand on, there can be no argument that Khandi Alexander and Melissa Leo have delivered truly excellent — and, I firmly believe, award-deserving — work.



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  • Eleanore Wells August 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    I,too, am puzzled by the snubbing of Treme, and Khandi Alexander, in particular. There’s so much junk on tv that I look forward every Sunday to this show that makes me think and feel.

  • Merrily Swoboda, Ph.D. August 15, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Alexandra MacAaron’s recent article about the HBO series “Treme,” and its snubbing by the Emmys “powers that be.” Thank you for eloquently expressing everything I also feel about this wonderful, demanding but rewarding, series.