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'Treme' season finale: Going out dancing

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It is difficult to invent a new rhythm for TV storytelling, yet that’s what Treme has accomplished as it closed out its first season this week. Treme adapted the roiling rumble of second-line dancing to the pace of an hour-long drama each week. I’m really glad the series has been renewed for a second season even as I have my reservations about the season’s various plots and pace.

Last night, one major event was the follow-up to last week’s startling conclusion: John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette committing suicide by drowning. This week’s extra-long episode, entitled “I’ll Fly Away,” dealt with the aftermath of that terrible act. It had been fascinating to watch Goodman and the show’s writers dramatize what it’s like to be a blocked writer, an academic stuck teaching freshman English when he knows he should be tackling that Big Book He’s Meant To Write.

“He f—in’ quit!” yelled his grief stricken wife, Toni (Melissa Leo’s work this season has been subtle and outstanding). Yes, he did. Cray also left Toni a most simple, eloquent suicide note in the wallet she discovered: “I love you, Cray.”

Cray’s suicide and its aftermath provided a narrative drive to an episode, written by co-creator David Simon, that inevitably, the way the season had unfolded, had to keep tabs and mop up a bit:

• Steve Zahn’s Davis, hard up for cash, went back to a radio DJ job and tried to woo Kim Dickens’ Janette into staying in New Orleans instead of moving to New York City, as she’d planned.

• Wendell Pierce’s Antoine picked up a session-recording gig with Allen Toussaint, played poker with the band members, and lost a lot of money.

• Clarke Peters’ Albert, with help from family and friends, got his Indian costumes ready in time to march musically down the street on “the first St. Joseph’s Day since the storm.”

• Street-musician mopes Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman) struggled to find work, and find their way back to each other. Sonny slipped back into heavy drug use.

• Khandi Alexander’s LaDonna arranged for the funeral of her brother, Daymo, and decided she didn’t want to know the real, mysterious circumstances behind his death.

We followed these subplots, which were intercut with each other. The acting in each plot has been superb, and Treme, in the name of realism, allowed its storytelling to drift off into the pleasant tedium of everyday life. But creators Simon and Eric Overmyer know that everyday life in post-Katrina New Orleans has an underlying urgency that they frequently used to try and give their quotidian details the weight of a heavier symbolism than most of the subplots could bear. Davis is and always will be a screw-up, it seems clear. Albert will always be a stubborn, aging Big Chief. Sonny and Annie will always be irritating twits.

Even so, one of the night’s big set-pieces was gorgeous — Chief Albert, in full Indian regalia, dancing, marching, and singing down the glowing night street, everything darkly glowing in bright colors.

After the funeral, following the band that played the mourners out of the cemetary and into the streets, LaDonna did some wonderful second-line dancing, at once joyous and sad and sensual and despairing. Khandi Alexander can do nothing wrong, from the way she shakes her hips to the way she shapes her lines of dialogue.

Toward the end, Treme allowed itself a daring dramatic flourish. Without warning, it segued into a flashback to just before Katrina hit. In these brief scenes, we saw Sonny and Annie in happier times; Cray and his family united in both their worry and love for each other (Creighton sat reading Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, emphasizing both his good taste and his penchant for the literature of despair); and, finally, we saw how LaDonna’s brother got arrested, put into the penal system, and disappeared until his death.

The episode allowed for long stretches of music as performed by real-life stars such as Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Lloyd Price, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and John Boutte. On a lesser series with lesser music, these would have been time-fillers; as it was, these mostly full-length performances (particularly of “Indian Red”) were hypnotic.

Going into next season, however, I’m not sure whose stories I’m invested in following. I certainly want to see what LaDonna and Toni are doing, moving on from the deaths in their families. Beyond that, I hope that Simon and company go even further in embracing the narrative style they’ve established here; rather than discrete subplots that must be chopped up and shuffled to form an hour or so, Treme could use the kind of fluidity its music extols.

I’ll be watching next season; will you? What did you think of Treme‘s season finale?

Follow: @kentucker

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