Videophiled TVD: Leaving the ‘Treme,’ Back to ‘Downton Abbey’

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Treme: The Complete Fourth Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
Treme: The Complete Series (HBO, Blu-ray)

HBO’s ensemble drama, created by David Simon (who previously gave HBO The Wire) and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, received accolades but was overlooked in the Emmys and struggled for viewers over its first three seasons. So the network gave Simon a short fourth season to wrap up the stories of his characters in a brief five episodes and he does so with the same focus on community and culture and the richness of New Orleans music that made the show one of cable’s finest dramas.

It opens in 2008, with the election of President Barack Obama and surge of hope for things to improve, and the season finds many of its characters taking the next step in their lives. Wendell Pierce’s Antoine Batiste discovers, much to his amazement, that he cares deeply about the lives and well-being of his music students beyond their musical talents. Chef Jeanette Desautel (Kim Dickens) parts ways with her former restaurant partner to open her own place and finds herself fighting to use her own name, due to a clause in her partnership contrast. Fiddler and singer Annie (Lucia Micarelli) takes a leap into the national music scene and struggles to hold on to her musical identity as her manager commercializes her sound. Melissa Leo’s bulldog of an attorney Toni Bernette continues to press her case against the NOPD and Detective Terry Colson defies the department to help her. And so many other stories play out in these final episodes—the most poignant revolving around Albert Lambreaux, (Clarke Peters), the stubborn Big Chief determined to preserve the Mardi Gras traditions of old, as he faces his own mortality when his cancer returns—without losing the pace of life and the rich culture that defines the show or the complexities and contradictions of the characters themselves. (What other show would make one of the out-of-state contractors who hustles his way into the big money pouring into reconstruction would cast Jon Seda and make him into such a likable guy?) It’s a show of politics and music and culture, but ultimately it’s about people trying to preserve what matters most to them.

Five episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes.

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HBO also releases the entire series in a box set on Blu-ray: 36 episodes on 14 discs in four cases. This is a series worth keeping and revisiting. It never found the critical cache or the intense devotion that made David Simon’s The Wire such a landmark, perhaps because these stories didn’t revolve around the volatile lives of cops and drug dealers and street kids trying to survive it all, but these stories are no less profound or moving and the culture that Simon and his collaborators (co-creator Eric Overmyer and writer David Mills, both veterans of Simon’s Homicide and The Wire, and novelist George Pelicanos and food writer Anthony Bourdain are part of the writing team) present on screen is richer and denser and more complex than anything I’ve seen on a fictional TV series. And when you pull it all together, you see a subtle but resonant closure that, as in The Wire, ties the series finale back to the first episode, both here directed by the great Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland: “Do You Know What it Means” and “… To Miss New Orleans.”

David Simon and various members of the cast and crew contribute commentary to over half of the episodes of the series and there is music commentary on each episode of the first three seasons, plus all the previously released featurettes and other supplements. This set also includes an exclusive bonus disc with 15 music videos.

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Downton Abbey: Season 4 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) opens six months after (*season 3 spoiler alert*) the death of Matthew Crawley, husband of Mary (Michelle Dockery) and heir to the Downton estate, with the house still in mourning and paternal patriarch Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), determined to take charge in the name of Mary’s infant son, heir to the Matthew’s share of the estate.

Creator / writer Julian Fellowes uses the turn of events to discuss such antiquated laws of inheritance in 20th century England, albeit with dignified restraint, just as it series gingerly addresses chauvinism, rape, and prejudice, the latter as the fun-loving young cousin Rose (Lily James) secretly dates a black American jazz singer. Mary blossoms in her new role as a manager of the estate (much to the frustration of her father) while courted by two suitors and, in proper Upstairs, Downstairs fashion, the servants deal with their own dramas and romantic tribulations, with lives spilling over the social division. Opera legend Kiri Te Kanawa guest stars in an early episode. The extended season finale “The London Season” brings the characters to London for Rose to be presented to the king and queen and features guest stars Shirley MacLaine (as Cora’s brash American mother) and Paul Giamatti (as her playboy brother Harold) who arrive in London for the occasion as well as an unexpected subplot that turns into a little heist drama with stalwart support from the loyal and reliable Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle).

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