"Treme" isn't "The Wire." Whereas David Simon's previous HBO effort was about how a city and its institutions can worm their way into the individual, "Treme," set during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure in New Orleans, is about how individuals affect a city and its institutions.
The opening credits roll over a parade of photos depicting water damage — not wide shots with a lot of context, but tight shots of mold-covered walls with ghosts of high-water lines. "Treme" is about the effects of destruction, but not all of it is due to raging wind and water: Some of the damage is personal, a byproduct of the human condition.
The show focuses on denizens of "the Treme" (pronounced treh-MAY), one of New Orleans' oldest neighborhoods: professional and street musicians, chefs, disc jockeys, contractors, teachers, lawyers and barkeeps. These are ordinary, average people negotiating and rebuilding a city ravaged by natural disaster, neglect and ineptitude. The Treme's population is mainly African American. Considering Simon's previous efforts, though, the first several episodes are surprisingly free of racial tension (and the brief smatterings of intense violence seem to relate more to authority than to race — suffice it say that the police and the National Guard are a little on edge).
Perhaps what draws these characters — black and white — together is a unique understanding of the city and the simmering hostility its residents of both races seem to share toward outsiders, Openly disdainful of the commerciality of Bourbon Street, a hotel clerk loses his job when he directs a group of young Anglo tourists seeking an "authentic" New Orleans experience to the rough-and-tumble Seventh Ward; street musicians become defensive and angry when those same tourists ask them to play "When the Saints Go Marching In"; a professor being interviewed about the flood damage grabs a camera from a condescending British news crew and tosses it into the river. Finally, a group of frustrated African American residents stare down and chase away a bus offering "Katrina tours." These scenes are heavy-handed, but they make their point (however, let's declare the point made — much more of this is going to get tiring).
Speaking of heavy-handed, some of my colleagues have taken "Treme" to task for being a sort of shorthand to New Orleans — a Cliff's Notes version of a city with such a rich history and tradition. I can see where that A, B, C-type approach could be frustrating to those already familiar with New Orleans and its singular culture, but the tourist map style works as a fine introduction to the uninitiated — even "Treme" writer David Mills was an outsider.
A veteran Simon collaborator (they worked together on "The Wire," "The Corner" and "Homicide") Mills died recently after collapsing on the "Treme" set. Afterward, Simon told the Los Angeles Times that Mills' value to "Treme" was his distance from the subject matter. While Simon and producing partner Eric Overmyer share an intimate familiarity with the city, Mills' distance allowed him to objectively and realistically assess how the show's narrative would play to people like him (and me) more or less ignorant of the city.
The acting is good, especially that of "The Wire's" Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters. Pierce plays trombonist Antoine Batiste and Peters is "Chief" Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian returning to the city and trying to rebuild his tribe. Pierce comes off as a proud schemer living in the moment while Peters is stubborn, defiant and — in his most frightening moments — reminiscent of Bill Cosby during his odd, off-kilter period a few years ago (though it's hard to imagine the Cos beating anybody senseless with a heavy pipe).
Khandi Alexander ("The Corner," "CSI") plays suffering barkeep Ladonna Batiste-Williams, Antoine's ex-wife. She's struggling with wind damage to her building as well as the disappearance of her brother, who hasn't been heard from since the hurricane and seems to be lost somewhere in the city's muddled criminal justice system. "Deadwood's" Kim Dickens is fine as struggling restaurateur Janette Desautel, also trying to rebuild her establishment. Desautel's eatery has no shortage of customers but suffers a lack of staff and a frustrating cash flow problem (the wheels of insurance, we learn, grind slowly).
Less successful is John Goodman as blustery Tulane professor Creighton Bernette. A hothead picking fights for any chance to point out that the Army Corps of Engineers and not the hurricane is to blame for the city's situation, Goodman is just too recognizable and stands out in a cast almost devoid of household names.
The real sore thumb, though, is goofy Steve Zahn. Ostensibly included for comic relief in a show that's not really dark enough to need it, Zahn plays, well, Zahn. His musician character — although Caucasian — is a resident and purist, sabotaging efforts to gentrify his African American neighborhood and losing his disc jockey job after hosting a voodoo-related chicken sacrifice on the air. Mills' writing history is apparent here: While Zahn's bare rear end on HBO isn't likely to generate the quantity of spilled water cooler cups that Dennis Franz's did years ago on "NYPD Blue," was it really necessary? Really? Couldn't there at least have been a warning? "The following program contains graphic language, violence and Steve Zahn's butt" would have helped.
The plot lines are interesting, but the show, like the city itself and the post-hurricane bureaucracy in which it finds itself, moves awfully slowly. If it's going to go beyond a single season, the characters and their stories are simply going to have to become more compelling. But I have faith. "The Wire" reinvented itself so many times and so masterfully, you've got to give Simon the benefit of the doubt.
Any review of "Treme" wouldn't be complete without mentioning the music, so pervasive that it's really more of a character than a soundtrack. Jazz permeates the show's dimly lit, smoky interiors as well as its bright sunny streets. It is played with equal joy and reverence at both parades and funerals, and it's celebrated in the show's upscale clubs and boozy dives. It's a visceral, aural personification of the spirit that drives these characters in this city and allows them to even consider a light at the end of tunnel.
If Simon is right and culture really is the most important factor in New Orleans resurgence, then music really is the heart and soul of "Treme."
9 p.m. Sunday, April 11