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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Videophiled TV on Disc: Another Season in the ‘Treme’

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Treme: The Complete Third Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) continues the complicated and sophisticated mix of cultural exploration, social drama, and political commentary of the HBO series about life in New Orleans after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

This season, which opens in the fall of 2007, takes on the rebuilding of the city and the influx of outside money and insider politics to shape the city in a different image against the interests of many of the citizens. It also continues the series-long investigation into the cover-up of police misconduct in the weeks following the hurricane with Melissa Leo’s attorney taking on the police department, which forms the most dramatic story of the season.

But as before, this is a grand quilt of a show embracing all aspects of New Orleans life and culture, and creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer continue to offer a complex, politically-relevant show that explores the city by engaging with the culture and the controversies of New Orleans through the experiences of characters at all levels of society. Music plays a defining role in the series, and along with the rich array of New Orleans music (old-style jazz, R&B, rock and roll, brass brand, traditional chanting, and more) and the stories of musicians trying to sustain careers in difficult times, there are guest appearances by Fats Domino and the Neville Brothers, among others. And New Orleans food and restaurant culture is explored through the story of a chef (played by Kim Dickens), who returns home from New York this season to open a new restaurant with a partner she doesn’t completely trust in a storyline that was developed with Anthony Bourdain, who joined the show as a contributing writer this season. The ensemble also includes Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, handi Alexander, Rob Brown, David Morse, Jon Seda, and Steve Zahn, among others. A short fourth and final season will run on HBO at the end of 2013.

Ten episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus commentary on five episodes, select music commentary, and three featurettes. The Blu-ray includes two additional interactive features about the music and culture of New Orleans.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 5 (Paramount, Blu-ray) opens with the conclusion of the Season Four cliffhanger that left the Klingon Empire hanging in the balance, brings back Denise Crosby as a cunning Romulan commander, guest stars Leonard Nimoy in the memorable two-part galaxy-threatening “Unification,” and concludes with another cliffhanger, this one involving Data’s decapitated head, Mark Twain, and a visit to 1890. Other highlights include the first appearance of the rebellious and angry loner “Ensign Ro”(Michelle Forbes), “The Game,” in which an addictive toy makes the Enterprise crew mind slaves but for Wesley and a guest starring Ashley Judd, and “I, Borg,” where the crew befriends an orphaned Borg soldier while plotting to infect the entire Borg colony with a virus. On the other hand, Worf’s son Alexander returns in this season (when will they learn: children and starships don’t mix!).

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Down in HBO’s “Treme”

Season One

Treme: The Complete First Season” (HBO)

David Simon followed up “The Wire” with this beautifully textured series set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the locals tried to pick up their lives and careers in the face of the devastation and damage, the exodus from homes left unlivable by water damage and mold, and the frustrations of bureaucratic tangles, government failures and overloaded demand on private contractors.

But don’t think this is a documentary. The plight of the citizens in New Orleans is illustrated through the experiences of the characters (most fictional, some real) that make up the sprawling community created by Simon and co-producer/writer Eric Overmyer. And if it seems like we’re getting lectures now and then from some of the more outspoken characters, such as John Goodman’s novelist and literature professor Creighton Bernette or Melissa Leo’s bulldog of an attorney Toni Bernette or even Steve Zahn’s community character and goofball activist Davis McAlary, it’s out of frustration, anger, loss and a feeling of helplessness against a juggernaut of apathy.

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