Treme’s second episode, "Meet De Boys on the Battlefront," one-ups the spectacular debut. Creator David Simon claims he told an HBO exec, “Fuck the exposition!” but in fact, deft exposition is why the second episode is better, riffing on the themes briefly stated in the first show, filling in the shadows of characters previously sketched quick as the faun Picasso drew in the air with a penlight for Life Magazine. And we’re talking some shocking shadows, here.
Who knew wise-eyed Big Chief Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), seemingly a man of gentle sorrow, was the kind of guy to brain a copper-wire burglar bloody with a bludgeon? Or that Coco Robicheaux would go all From Dusk Till Dawn on a chicken when DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) puts him on his radio show? Most stunning of all, Davis gets a job! In a cheesy Bourbon Street hotel where he can’t tell the ignorant tourists off – though he can send church youth to the down-and-dirtiest dive he knows, panicking church elders.
The kids discover the underworld where Antoine (Wendell Pierce) wails on his bone – both the trombone and, alas for his child’s mother, the other bone that preoccupies him. Granted, the only place Antoine can get a job is a strip joint, but putting Antoine in a room with a bunch of pretty young loose women is like putting your life savings in a room with Bernie Madoff. In some exceptional individuals, vice is so virtuosic, it amounts to a perverse kind of innocence. Antoine will get his comeuppance when he’s forced to introduce the mother of his child to the other mother, of his other child. Who wants to bet they’ll bond against Antoine? Nobody could play this awkward moment better than Pierce.
Stumbling home after a stripper gig, Antoine happens upon an intriguing duo of new characters, buskers Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman). Even though they’re playing for pennies, a step down from the club, Antoine likes their groove and joins in. Annie’s protective of Sonny, who radiates hostile assholery – if John Hiatt were more Cajun, their theme song could be “She Loves the Jerk.” Sonny hates tourists, but in a different way from the various characters we’ve met so far. To watch Treme is to become a connoisseur of 31 flavors of xenophobia. Sonny is an utterly convincing, entirely transparent phoney who busts everyone in sight for his own besetting sin.
While attorney Toni (Melissa Leo) pragmatically sleuths for the missing brother of LaDonna (Khandi Aleander), her zealot professor husband Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) rails that the kids in his college are getting trained in humanistic navel-gazing instead of, say, the skills urgently needed to rebuild the city: “Let's not learn how to do anything, let's just sit and learn about the glory of me, in all my complexity!”
I studied Humanities 101 at Reed College when Eric Overmyer was getting his start in the theatre department; do I hear a critique of our luftmenschy alma mater? (One other real-life point I hesitate to bring up, but I’d be lying if it didn’t worry me: if John Goodman gets any fatter, he’ll explode like Mr. Creosote, who agrees to one more bite in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – and if anything could cause a guy to go pop, it’s the kind of operatic jeremiads scripted by David Simon, Eric Overmyer, and David Mills.)
The rap on Treme is that it’s shapeless, but it’s actually rigidly disciplined. When Twin Peaks first wowed everybody and everybody was asking who killed Laura Palmer, Elmore Leonard sarcastically replied, “I don’t think they know who killed Laura Palmer.” But the makers of Treme know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going. Everyone in the city is a free spirit captive on an invisible train of fate. It’s not too late to catch a ride.