Premieres tonight on HBO, 10 p.m. ET
[Important note: I will be writing about Treme every week for TV Club. However, since tonight is the premiere and I’m posting this article before the episode airs, I’m treating it like I would a (not-too-spoilery) review and looking at the show in a broader context. All subsequent Treme recaps will be written under the assumption that readers have seen the episode and will get into the developments in more specific detail.]
Emily Nussbaum’s recent must-read profile on David Simon for New York magazine addressed front and center what anyone who interviews him can attest: He’s one irascible fellow. (My experience of interviewing him near the end of The Wire’s fifth and final season was bracing in the best possible sense, though I’ll confess to seizing up in terror when he used the phrase “let me get Socratic on your ass,” and started peppering me with questions about the Baltimore Sun subplot. My quivering, pathetic response ultimately didn’t make the cut.) And Simon’s fury is so evident in The Wire and his equally brilliant Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill that people tend to forget how humane his shows are at their core. The important thing to remember about Simon: He loves people. What he hates are the institutions that fail them. The genius of both series is their ability to demonstrate convincingly how the arrogance and avarice of the powerful become the trickle-down tragedies of the powerless.
Goodness knows, Simon’s wonderful new series Treme has plenty of opportunities to rage at institutional failure, given that it takes place in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—an event the Bush Administration handled with spectacularly tragic ineptitude. And indeed, Simon finds a mouthpiece in Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a college professor first seen berating a British TV journalist for asking an insulting question about why federal dollars should be used to rebuild the city at all. Once Creighton gets a head of steam—and Goodman plays him with a rampaging fervor that’s both righteous and dangerously out-of-control—it’s only a matter of time before the camera gets chucked into the waterway behind him. Creighton, like Simon, does not suffer fools lightly.
Yet, in the early going at least, Goodman’s character is more the exception than the rule. Treme may well enter the corridors of power, but for now, it’s a series that affirms—with humor, tenderness, insight, and a rich sense of regional music and custom—Simon’s love of humanity and its resilience in the face of trying circumstances. Fans of The Wire will recognize a similar iconoclasm and journalistic attention to detail, but Treme shouldn’t be taken as The Wire: Port Of Call New Orleans (or Generation Kill, which was more or less The Wire: Iraq). It’s much more of a slice-of-life than a relentless narrative; Simon and company focus almost entirely on evoking the authentic particulars of character and atmosphere. Last time I wrote about The Wire, I had a hell of a time keeping nitwits from spoiling future developments on the comment boards; so far, Treme doesn’t seem like it’s going to a problem—this is not a series hinged on dramatic twists and turns.
As usual, Simon has enough faith in his audience to toss them in the deep end and trust they’ll learn how to paddle. “Do You Know What It Means,” for example, opens with a “second line celebration” and closes with a jazz funeral, but there’s no one around to give those rituals a name or explain their meaning. That’s up to us to deduce. But both events underline the series’ thesis: Katrina may have brought devastation on New Orleans, but its spirit and its culture were not drowned in kind. Contrary to the odious suggestion of the TV journalist’s question, the New Orleans of Treme is not unsalvageable or a once-great city past its prime. Reports of its death (some before the flood) have been greatly exaggerated.
In 80 minutes, “Do You Know What It Means” has a difficult task of introducing another large ensemble, putting their stories into motion, and establishing the rich ambience at the series’ core. Simon and company import a couple of favorites from The Wire: NOLA resident Wendell Pierce (a.k.a. “Bunk”) plays Antoine Batiste, a down-on-his-luck jazz trombonist who can barely scrape together enough money playing gigs to come up with cab fare. The hitch-stepped Clarke Peters (a.k.a. Lester Freamon) appears as Albert Lambreaux, a prideful bass player and Mardi Gras Indian who comes back to a ravaged home post-flood and insists on staying, even if it means sleeping in an abandoned bar. (The shot of Albert’s ceiling fan, the blades drooping in a water-damaged frown, stuck with me more than any other in the episode.)
The first episode also gives a lot of time over to Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary, a terminal fuck-up of Jimmy McNulty proportions who works as a DJ for an independent jazz station. Times are tough for Davis and the station, which is struggling like many independent radio stations to stay solvent without compromising their core mission. (Davis freaks out over having to play the New Orleans standards everyone knows, just because it drives pledge dollars into the station.) Also delivering a strong first impression are a handful of first-rate actresses in the cast: Kim Dickens as Janette, a local chef who occasionally makes the mistake of sleeping with Davis; Homicide’s Melissa Leo as Creighton’s wife, an equally tenacious (though better tempered) lawyer who isn’t afraid to take on the powerful; and Khandi Alexander (who you might remember from NewsRadio) as Antoine’s ex-wife Ladonna, who runs a bar.
There are other players in the ensemble, some to be introduced in the coming weeks, but my advise to Treme watchers is basically the same as my advise to people who first try to get into The Wire: Don’t fret if you don’t pick up on who’s who and what’s what right away. Just let it wash over you, and the full picture will be sketched over time. Treme strikes me as the work of a confident dramatist—it’s very much at ease (perhaps too much for some) in allowing its world to unfold gradually, without stepping too hard on the throttle. Without underplaying the devastation caused by Katrina and its aftermath, Treme emerges as something unlikely: A real pleasure.
• Given The Wire’s perpetual struggle to find viewers—at least before coming to DVD—one can’t help but wonder how accessible Treme will be in comparison. Part of me thinks that Simon’s throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end style will perhaps alienate the same chunk of viewers that didn’t have the patience for The Wire. And it’s possible that the lack of a driving narrative (and the action and drama inherent in the drug wars) will cause problems as well. In other ways, though, Treme seems more broadly appealing: The music is a treat, the characters are more instantly relatable, and it’s a vibrant tour through one of America’s great cities. (No offense to Baltimore.)
• We can expect some real-life musicians to pass through Treme. I particularly like the way Elvis Costello’s appearance was handled; Zahn’s Davis hovers over him at a club, but for the most part, he seems very much like a famous person in the wild.
• Simon studiously avoids cliché by not showing us the New Orleans that’s splashed all over tourist guides, but I’m sure he’ll have to grapple with that side of the city eventually. I suspect his irascible side might turn up for a cameo.