Friday, April 09, 2010


Resurrecting a city and a way of life

By Edward Copeland
When David Simon created his landmark series The Wire on HBO, it wasn't immediately apparent that his plan was something larger than just a cops versus drug dealers tale, even though its excellence and higher level was clear. The title even seemed to suggest that police work was the main focus but with each season, more plates were set spinning in the air and a broader portrait of Baltimore was being drawn.

With Simon's new HBO series Treme, which he co-created with Eric Overmyer, writer and executive producer of Law & Order, another city takes the focus: New Orleans, three months after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Unlike The Wire, Treme, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. Central/9 p.m. Eastern, isn't a deconstruction of a place, it tells the story of a city and its citizens struggling to bounce back and keep alive the culture and institutions that made them proud and New Orleans great before the storm hit.

Before Treme even aired, it suffered a tragedy of its own when David Mills, its co-executive producer who worked with Simon on The Corner, The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street, passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 48.

Viewers expecting to see The Wire moves to New Orleans will be sorely disappointed, but those tuning in for another quality drama should be satisfied as Treme presents a multi-layered character study in which the main character is New Orleans itself, three months after the catastrophe of Katrina.

Several familiar faces from previous Simon works populate the cast. From The Wire, Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters return in new roles. Going back to The Corner, Khandi Alexander pops up and venturing even further into Simon's television past, Treme marks the return to series television of original Homicide cast member Melissa Leo. Kim Dickens, a veteran of another great HBO series, Deadwood, also takes part in the ensemble as does Steve Zahn, making his television series debut. John Goodman also plays a major role, though he isn't listed in the opening credits.

What's so unusual about Treme is that, though I've seen the first three episodes, this is not a series where I fear revealing spoilers because this is not a show about plot twists. It unfolds as the viewer acts mostly as a fly on the wall watching the lives of the various characters struggling to move their lives forward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While this could sound like a grim experience, it also has ample humor. Still, this isn't a political tract where each week the characters reiterate the list of grievances of how the U.S. government let a city drown and people die. That is addressed (most often through Goodman's character), but the show is more interested in the characters just trying to deal with the cards they've been dealt and move along. As Zahn's character Davis, a would-be musician working as a disc jockey as the series opens, says in exasperation at one point, "I just want my city back."

When one thinks of New Orleans (pre-Katrina anyway) the things that usually come to mind are food, drink, music and Mardi Gras and while the series isn't near Mardi Gras time yet, the other three subjects are central to it. In fact, I don't recall seeing another dramatic series that contained so much music as integral to its story (the first three episodes even include cameos by Elvis Costello and Dr. John).

In addition to Zahn's would-be musician, there is Pierce as Antoine Batiste, a horndog jazz trombonist struggling to get paying jobs to support his live-in girlfriend (who emphasizes to Antoine that there's a difference between a gig and a job) and their baby girl, though his eye never stops wandering not even from his ex-wife LaDonna (Alexander), who tries to keep her family's saloon going while commuting daily from Baton Rouge.

Peters' Albert Lambreaux's music comes more from his role as chief of the White Feather Nation, a mainstay of Mardi Gras celebrations, whose son, Delmond, (Rob Brown) is a successful jazz musician in New York who has traveled to New Orleans to try to talk his dad out of his dream of reassembling the tribe.

On the food side, there is Dickens' Janette, Davis' on again-off again girlfriend who is facing high hurdles keeping her small restaurant open in the wake of the storm and under the weight of mounting bills and a dwindling customer base.

Leo plays Toni Bernette, a civil rights attorney who has managed at one time or another to piss off just about everyone in authority in town. Right now, she's trying to help LaDonna locate her missing brother who was jailed shortly before Katrina hit and his family doesn't know if he's dead or if he's one of the many being incarcerated in another parish as part of a program where FEMA pays the jailers funds for taking inmates off their hands.

Goodman plays Toni's husband, Creighton, a university professor, and he's definitely the series' voice of outrage and as a result he gets many of the best speeches, whether he's railing against the the flood as a "federal fuckup of epic proportions" and taking out his anger on a British reporter who suggests that New Orleans is no longer a "great city" worth saving. He's also outraged as his school cuts hundreds of professors who teach science and engineering courses but keep more liberal arts study programs. Why keep educators who know how to build things, he asks a student, "when we can contemplate the glory of me?" What all the characters of native New Orleans residents seem to have, all the way down to street musicians resentful of church groups who come to help but want to hear "When the Saints Come Marching In," share is a disdain for the tourist industry the disaster has created. There are even tour groups on buses who interrupt a funeral proceeding. Still, the natives realize that those same tourists they hold in disdain are the key to the survival of both themselves and their city.

At least with the first three episodes I've seen so far, Treme proves to be fascinating and I look forward to seeing how these characters traverse that journey.

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