Although some of its characters earned temporary happy endings at the completion of five seasons, HBO’s “The Wire” was the Great American Urban Tragedy of the 21st Century. It was a chronicle of rickety institutions, thwarted altruistic intentions and rewarded corruption. Using Baltimore as a backdrop, “The Wire” looked at the police, the media, the school system and saw hope that things might be getting better, but faced reality that they were getting worse.
[It was also thrilling, hilarious, full of heart and home to dozens of the richest characters ever crafted in fiction. I never want to make “The Wire” sound too depressing or too much like homework. It’s addictive and enjoyable as well.]
HBO’s “Treme,” from “The Wire” creator David Simon and Eric Overmyer, is a different beast, although comparing the two shows is practically a contractual imperative for TV critics, one that I’m living up to without hesitation.
In “Treme,” Simon and Overmyer depict a city heading in a different direction. Or maybe Simon and Overmyer have just found a city where things couldn’t possibly get any worse. Picking up in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina, “Treme” has its nadir in the rearview, at least insofar as the nadir can be measured sheerly by water level. The Big Easy depicted in “Treme” is still veritable ghost town, where Bourbon Street has been rebuilt, but people are still missing, businesses and schools are still closed, bodies are still turning up and the military is still prowling the streets like an occupying force. New Orleans is coming back, but nothing is happening quickly or easily.
If you compare “Treme” to “The Wire” in terms of quality, you won’t accomplish anything. One is perhaps the greatest show in the history of the medium and the other is a new show that I’ve seen three episodes of.
Taken for those three episodes, though, “Treme” definitely has the potential to evolve as something special. It’s humane, layered and it takes less than an hour for it to display a firmer grasp of place and local color than anything on television. It’s not gripping like “The Wire” was, but it’s also not coming out of an established genre tradition the way “The Wire” was. “Treme” is making its own path and I look forward to seeing how the first season progresses.
[More on “Treme” and more unavoidable comparisons to “The Wire,” after the break…]
There will be complaints that not very much happens in “Treme.” I’m not going to stand here and try telling you that Simon and Overmyer are as invested in plot as they are in the people and the location.
“The Wire” was often called Dickensian, but that was a highfalutin way to say that it was an IQ-boosted version of the Sidney Lumet crime films of the ’70s or even later urban crime dramas like “New Jack City” or “Sugar Hill” or “Fresh,” all fused with the muckraking passions of an Upton Sinclair. If somebody asked you, “What’s ‘The Wire’ about?” your answer of “It’s cops and drug dealers in Baltimore” would be reductive, but not incorrect.
Ask me what “Treme” is about and I’m prone to give a broader answer like “‘Treme’ is about New Orleans,” which tells you nothing you need to know, but isn’t at all wrong. Like a vintage Robert Altman film, “Treme” is about the tapestry and the sprawl. It’s about a huge ensemble of characters who sometimes cross paths, but not in portentous “Crash”-inspired ways. In “Treme,” paths cross because in a small city, made all the more insular by tragedy, the people trying to live their lives sometimes interact.
Simon and Overmyer take pride in delving deeply into the things that New Orleans takes pride in, especially the music and the food. It’s hard to think of any show in recent memory that has worked this hard to do right by jazz (or any musical discipline, really) and cuisine. If you’re a foodie, you’re gonna love “Treme.” If you’re a jazzhead, you’re gonna love “Treme.” The opening episodes are peppered with cameos from real chefs and real performers as if Simon and Overmyer are rewarding those personalities and also rewarding audience members with sufficient investment in the material. It’s a safe assumption when you’re watching “Treme” that if a new arrival in a scene is just a little bit too uneasy or unpolished as an actor, you can google them and check out their albums or attempt to make reservations at their restaurants. For viewers with a background in New Orleans culture, “Treme” may come across as a more substantive version of “Entourage.”
Even in a TV landscape where a music talent show is still TV’s most popular program and Bravo can build a schedule around different showcases for top chefs, “Treme” focuses on isolating and specific subject matter and does so with an assortment of characters featuring foreign-sounding last names like “Batiste” and “Lambreaux.” Many of the actors, particularly those in supporting roles, sport accents which will be close to impenetrable to certain Yankee ears. There’s an argument to be made that “Treme” is, in some ways, even less accessible to casual viewers than “The Wire” was.
Working in the favor of “Treme” is a cast of recognizable faces doing uniformly excellent work. Everybody will recognize John Goodman, adding humor and fire as a university professor and New Orleans expert full of rage at the various avoidable factors that made Katrina as devastating as it was. Goodman’s character is married to a lawyer played by Oscar nominee Melissa Leo. Equally recognizable is Steve Zahn, as aspiring musician and disc jockey with a strident admiration for the Real New Orleans. Giving the two best performances, to my mind at least, are a pair of Simon’s “Wire” veterans, Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, playing a philandering trombonist and a Mardi Gras Indian chef looking to rebuild his tribe, respectively. Also hailing from the past Simon projects is Khandi Alexander as a bar owner still looking for her lost younger brother.
The core cast also includes Kim Dickens, Rob Brown, Michiel Huisman, Lucia Micarelli and a revolving ensemble of guest musicians, sous chefs and hangers-on.
“Treme” loves New Orleans and respects New Orleans but, for the most part, it doesn’t fetishize New Orleans. Although Bourbon Street features into the show — and although we learn in no uncertain terms that there’s still pride on Bourbon Street — this isn’t the “Saints Go Marching In”/gumbo/Cafe du Monde/Jax Brewery New Orleans that lazy movies and TV shows like FOX’s well-intentioned “K-Ville” have spotlighted. “Treme” doesn’t shy from the economic disparities that already plagued New Orleans before the levees broke and, as you’d guess based on Simon and Overmyer’s political and storytelling bents, the city’s stratification is actually central to everything that’s going on.
And what’s actually going on? Like I’ve already said, the answer is “Very little.” “Treme” is about restaurant owners trying to pay their produce bills, about musicians playing dismal gigs they’d have been too proud to accept six months earlier, about lawyers threatening law suits left and right because sometimes that’s the only way Americans know how to handle a situation. It’s about people who are angry, but also people who are hopeful and optimistic.
Because “Treme” hasn’t set itself along a single narrative course and because we know that five years later, the rebuilding of New Orleans remains a work in progress, the story is open to follow any number of trails and it will always allow for several years of retroactive examination from the creators. I hope that enough people watch so that Simon and Overmyer have time to expand on this growing tableau, which should never lack for characters and tales to tell.
“Treme” premieres on HBO on Sunday, April 11 at 10 p.m.