Before you read on, I’d like to qualify my definition of a musical, in relation to Tremé, to clear up any possible confusion. Tremé is a musical program in that it heavily features musical performances. These performances are, uh, performed, by the shows characters—its guest stars, its cameos, its extras…you get the point. But Tremé is not a musical in the same vein as Glee. There are no impromptu bursts of song, replete with back-up dancers and an invisible backing band. Tremé is a dramatic program. It just happens to centre around the musical city of New Orleans. For the uninitiated, the tremé is a New Orleans neighbourhood known primarily for its musical heritage. Scroll to the bottom for some clips.
Glee is a lot of fun. I like it, unironically, and I have no problems putting those words to print. But having just watched the tenth episode—and first season finale—of HBO and David Simon’s Tremé, I’ve got to put something else into print, something I’ve known pretty distinctly since I watched the first episode some weeks back—Tremé, not Glee, is the best musically oriented show on television. I’m sorry, Channing. It’s not personal.
No, what it is is (is!) the honest to blog truth.
Yes, Glee is a lot of fun. I think I’ve already said this. But that’s more or less all it is. That’s not a bad thing. But Tremé is on another level, focusing itself around post-Katrina New Orleans and making the city its protagonist much like Simon’s last show, The Wire, did with Baltimore. The city is the star, that which the story revolves around, but its supporting cast is no slouch. The music, though, is sublimely good. Glee had Olivia Newton John and Josh Groban guest starring as themselves. Cool. Tremé has Steve and Justin Townes Earle as buskers. Elvis Costello guest starred in the first two episodes. Allen Toussaint was in the season finale. Don’t forget Dr. John or a slew of local talent like Kermit Ruffins (as himself) and the Rebirth Brass Band (who you might’ve heard on Raphael Saadiq’s 2008 release The Way I See It). And the adorable busker Annie? That’s Lucia Micarelli, a Julliard trained violinist. Its set in 2005, before anybody knew who Lady Gaga was (including the Gags herself), so you can count out topical guest spots or tributes. The closest the show comes is in the closing credits of the season finale, premiering Steve Earle’s newest song ” This City”, a track written exclusively for the show (with the help of Alan Toussaint and T-Bone Burnett, who helped make last year’s Crazy Heart as good as it was). As a meta of fact, Earle’s character “Harley” is shown earlier in the episode struggling to finish writing it.
Tremé is more than big names. It’s a musical feeling. The music is all diegetic. It comes with performances. Annie and Sonny do their big easy Swell Season thing busking for change. Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Baptiste, a struggling trombonist who drags his ‘bone’ from one audition to the next gig, resulting in booming New Orleans jazz in the dankest of post-hurricane environments.
Okay, so referencing Glee wasn’t necessary. These shows aren’t peers, then again that’s kind of my point. Tremé is Glee’s counterpoint. The point is that for every hyper-coordinated, oddly lip-synched number Glee delivers, Tremé offers up a raw response. So no, they’re not peers, because if they were there’d be no competition. Glee is a lot of fun, and I’ll keep saying this until you tune out, but it’s pulp. If I had kids, I’d watch Glee by their side, but I’d put Tremé on as soon as they went to bed.
There’s a scene in Sunday’s finale that highlights the difference between the two shows. In a cameo almost nobody would recognize, John Boutté (who wrote and performed the show’s theme), shows up on chef Janette’s doorstop and, as a favour to fellow Tremé resident Davis (Steve Zahn), starts singing Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me”. After he finishes, Davis remarks, “He sounds exactly like Sam Cooke!” Dryly, Boutté replies “Fuck that, I sound like John Boutté!”
He does sound like Sam Cooke. A lot. But Boutté’s response is the difference between the two shows. Tremé is without imitations; Glee is filled with covers, Tremé is filled with songs. It may not be eligible for an Emmy this coming award season due to some confusing loophole but even still I say, in confidence, that it was the best musically oriented television show of this past season.
Long story short, Tremé is a great show. Watch it. Thanks for reading. Here are a shit-ton of clips. Light spoilers, I guess, but nothing you’ll really have to worry about.
Antoine and the Rebirth Brass Band ‘Feel Like Funkin It Up’ in the show’s opening scene.
Antoine, Sonny and Annie perform “Ghost of a Chance”
Big Chief Lambreaux leads his fellow Indians in a memorial
Davis adapts Smiley Lewis’ “Shame, Shame, Sham” into a commentary on Louisiana politics
Davis plays “Buono Sera” on his radio show in this montage.