Treme, the new HBO series set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina, premieres Sunday to high expectations.
Fans of co-creator David Simon's work on the epic Baltimore crime series The Wire (and The Corner, Generation Kill and Homicide: Life on the Street) have good reason to believe they're in for something special.
It's been a while now since HBO can lay claim to the "most important drama series on TV." The consensus these days leans toward AMC's Mad Men, as HBO's former main contender, the polygamy-themed Big Love, devolved into over-the-top Melrose Place silliness in its fourth season this year.
So how will critics, bloggers and discriminating fans judge Treme, coming from the creators of The Wire, which some of us consider the greatest TV drama of all time? Is Treme another one for the ages?
Hard to say. I think it's mesmerizing, thoroughly engrossing and great. On the other hand, this is challenging stuff, and potentially frustrating. You think The Wire had a lot of characters? Well, you'd better go ahead and bookmark that IMDB page for Treme now, folks, because you'll need the scorecard. While The Wire juggled many storylines at once, they were interconnected in ways that were pretty easy to understand, as long as you were paying attention.
Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer don't make things so easy this time. None of these myriad characters—musicians, Indian Mardi Gras chiefs, food and beverage service industry people, lawyers, professors — is the main one, and there's no "A" storyline.
The story here is the spirit of New Orleans—its culture and the post-Katrina struggle to maintain its unique jazz roots in the Treme district in the face of gentrification, well-meaning but insulting tourist interest and cases of devastation where there's little hope of recovery. Up until about halfway through the second episode, viewers' attention will likely be focused on keeping track of who's who and why they matter. And with each of the first three episodes, you may ask yourself, "What was that about?" (Hey, maybe it has some of that Mad Men appeal after all.)
One thing that everybody should be able to agree on is that Treme has an excellent cast, including actors who've worked with Simon before. The glue that binds at least some of these characters is crusading lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo from Homicide: Life on the Street). In each of the first three episodes, it seems she's being summoned down to some detention center to get somebody's ass out of jail. Her main project is a heartbreaking, frustrating search for a prisoner who was swept up by authorities during the storm and hasn't been heard from since. That prompts his worried sister, a tough bar owner named Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander, The Corner) to seek Toni's help.
Toni's trips to the overcrowded jails, where men are crammed, seated, on hard floors, most of them dressed in orange prison jumpers and surrounded by pacing guards, evoke Guantnamo. (You just know that Simon and company meant it that way.)
Out on the street, the siege atmosphere looms oppressively as well, whether it's armed National Guardsmen squinting menacingly at passers by, just waiting for signs of trouble; or the constant flow of Guard trucks and cop cruisers rolling by; or outright police brutality and petty arrests. You really feel for one of Toni's pro bono clients, slacker DJ-musician Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), when he wearily taps his sagging head against the jail wall and tells Toni, "I want my city back," after comparing its current state to Fallujah.
Other standouts in the cast include the great Wendell Pierce (Bunk on The Wire), who plays Antoine Batiste, a chump-change trombonist and charming womanizer; I'm tempted to ruin some of his belly-laugh one-liners for you, but I won't. John Goodman's on the show, too, playing a big, scary tub of righteous rage as Toni's English prof hubby Creighton Bernette.
While there's no "star" of the show, I nominate Clarke Peters (Lester on The Wire), who plays Albert Lambreaux, a master carpenter and Mardi Gras Indian Chief. Simply put, he's incredible. Peters quietly and powerfully conveys the emotions of a proud man whose home, family and tribe have all been shattered and scattered by the storm. But when he picks up that tambourine, shakes it and bellows out a chant-song, he'll literally pin you to your seat. You were not expecting that.
You get the feeling that a season-ending re-enactment of the real-life Mardi Gras that occurred on February 2006, six months after the storm (in the show, Lambreaux is determined that it won't get canceled) is a major part of whatever season-ending payoff Simon and Overmyer have in mind. Meanwhile, the main hook is the gradual development of emotional investment in these well-drawn characters and caring about how they'll manage to rebuild their lives.
As for the music: Of course, there's plenty of it. Legendary acts get their due, and better-known ones such as Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John get songs and speaking roles. It all sounds great and provides one more reward for your patience. One of the first things I did after watching this show was to go on Amazon and finally cop that Wild Tchoupitoulas album I've been eyeing since 1976. Watch the first episode of Treme, and you may find yourself seeking out the soundtrack, too.