The welter of expectations and “highly anticipateds” surrounding the premiere of David Simon’s “Treme” all but demands a measure of critical blowback. Certainly there will be obligatory mewling about the new 10-episode HBO series being good but not as good as “The Wire,” which launched Simon into the elite cadre of television artistes. There may be some random chest-beating over white folks’ unfortunate tendency to get mushy in the head about black musicians and the South in general, and probably more than a few blog-ready over-analyses of the politics/wisdom/hubris/sentimentality of taking on post-Katrina New Orleans.
But it’s all sound and fury. With “Treme” (which refers to a New Orleans neighborhood and is pronounced treh-MAY), Simon, co-creator Eric Overmyer and their team of writers (including the late, great David Mills) have proved that television as an art form can not only rival Dickens, but it also can hold its own against Wagner.
Full of the same complicated characters, crisscrossing story lines and well-informed immediacy that made “The Wire” one of the most astonishing shows on television, “Treme” flips the theme of urban decay and infuses it with music.
The pilot, directed by Agnieszka Holland and which premieres Sunday, opens with Treme’s first second-line parade since the storm and ends with a traditional funeral. In the hour and a half in between, music is woven into the narrative like gold thread through a medieval tapestry -- sets played in clubs by real local stars including Kermit Ruffins (who apparently makes some mean barbecue), snatches aired in protest by the slacker-gadfly DJ Davis McAlary ( Steve Zahn), gigs picked up by profligate trombonist Antoine Batiste (“The Wire’s” Wendell Pierce) and drum rituals of Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, also of “The Wire”), a Mardi Gras Indian chief determined to raise his tribe and his community once again.
Far from the show-stopping set pieces of “Glee” or the distracting emo-soundtracks of so many adult dramas, the music of “Treme” enters seamlessly at regular intervals, as essential to the story as the players or the plot.
Add a cast that includes not only the above-mentioned stars but also Oscar nominee Melissa Leo, “Deadwood’s” Kim Dickens, Khandi Alexander ( “CSI: Miami”) and John Goodman, and you have not so much a television show as a modern American opera, full of flop sweat, spectacle and something that looks suspiciously like hope.
If “The Wire” was about the inevitable, irreversible decay of the American urban center, “Treme” is about something else. The exact nature of that something is not immediately clear. Certainly, it is not as simplistic as resiliency or renewal -- the mold that is consuming so many homes is not the only source of rot run wild. But in the wake of destruction, the natural order demands growth of one thing or another.
Compared with “The Wire,” which though gorgeously complex had the solid scaffolding of crime and punishment, “Treme” is based on something much more amorphous.
Simon has talked about how hard it was before Katrina to sell a series set in New Orleans, and there’s a reason for that. With all its cultural baggage, New Orleans is the ultimate scene stealer, ready to bog a drama down in glittery beads, crawdads and hot Big Easy sex.
Behind the bourbon-and-tourist-dollar-fueled madness of Mardi Gras has always lurked an off-putting Otherness, a messy tangle of race and class and faded gaudiness that made it feel too much of a set to be an actual set. Even “The Princess and the Frog” couldn’t quite lift its story out of the bayou of voodoo, jazz and beignets. Add to that the almost incomprehensible devastation of Katrina, the national failure it represents, and New Orleans, unlike the much lesser-known Baltimore, seems to have too much going on.
With all the documentaries, the helpful Hollywood stars and the incessant media reports of how the rebuilding is or is not progressing, how do you make enough room for a television show?
Not surprisingly, many feared that “Treme” would be Simon’s “John From Cincinnati,” a show drowning in quirkiness and creative freedom. But the otherworldliness of the city is balanced by characters that manage to be both place-specific and universal.
With his lovable sad-sack demeanor and horn-dog ways, Pierce’s Antoine is the ultimate indigent musician, and his ex-wife LaDonna (Alexander) is tempered tough and sharp by their marriage and years running a New Orleans bar. When we meet her, she’s trying to find her troubled brother, missing since the storm, making it a particular story but with iconic overtones -- the good sister trying to save her brother from life on the streets.
Davis McAlary, the DJ, is the chatterbox and self-appointed expert, providing comic relief with echoes of Cliff Clavin from “Cheers.” Leo’s Toni Bernette is a civil rights attorney who would be saddled with just as many tote bags in Chicago as she is in New Orleans. Likewise, her husband, Creighton (Goodman), is the angry academic, talking to NPR to spread his message, which in this case is how the government stupidity contributed to the disaster.
Even Albert Lambreaux (Peters), the Mardi Gras chief, is at once both very New Orleans -- nowhere else could such a seriously straight man wear all those candy-colored feathers -- and an archetype, the father who cannot understand why his son (Rob Brown) wants to abandon his roots and play jazz in New York.
There are moments in the first three episodes when some of these characters seem a bit too formulaic -- Zahn in particular walks a fine line between being that lovable irritant and parodying him -- but their familiarity keeps “Treme” from tipping into all color, no substance.
The performances are universally good -- Leo and Goodman seem on their way to creating the best TV marriage outside “Friday Night Lights” -- and every character has plenty of room to move: up, down or sideways.
Around them swarms the city, with its images of glory faded and destroyed. As in “The Wire,” real people move in and out of scenes -- Elvis Costello shows up quietly hilarious in the pilot -- which also helps keeps the tone and pace from flying too close to the sun. Local musicians are introduced, local phraseology is used, with no attempt to identify or explain -- if you don’t get it, Google it, seems to be the attitude and that’s just fine; “Treme” is a full-immersion experience.
The lemon ice, the Katrina tours, the funk of muck and sweat and no running water, the soul-sucking abyss of bureaucracy all sing a distinctly American song as trying and uplifting and undeniable as the city of New Orleans itself.
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