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After the Storm: An Advance Review of HBO's New Drama Series Treme

It's been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina and the specter of loss and tragedy hangs over the American South as recovery from this disaster continues to this day. But while Katrina shifted neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of thousands from New Orleans and tales of death and destruction became commonplace, there also emerged something else from the wreckage: an eternal symbol of the ability of the human spirit to adapt and to overcome.

In HBO's new drama series Treme, from creators David Simon (The Wire) and Eric Overmyer (Homicide: Life on the Street), the clock is rewound to three months after Katrina and the audience is taken to a New Orleans fighting for its very survival in the face of insurmountable odds.

In the historic and musically significant neighborhood of Treme, we're introduced to a colorful cast of characters who are struggling to return to something akin to normalcy in the midst of chaos, bureaucratic ineptitude, and squalor. Houses, formerly under feet of water, are filled with mud and muck, roofs blown out by the storm are covered with blue tarps, and there's an eerie sense of desolation emanating from the empty storefronts and vacant homes.

Those who have stayed attempt to cling to the old ways, to the traditions that made this city great, and which will serve to feed the populace in a time of great struggle: the music, the food, the living and breathing culture of New Orleans, itself the main character in this extraordinary and provocative new series.

Many viewers will undoubtedly compare Treme to The Wire, given the presence of David Simon at the helm of this series but the comparison isn't entirely apt. While Treme shares some of the narrative hallmarks of The Wire--such as embracing the diverse strands of multiple storylines and characters, some of whom overlap, and offering a precise portrait of a city trapped in amber--this series is its own beast, bringing to life both the beauty and tragedy of life in New Orleans after Katrina.

Embodying these diverse plotlines is the remarkable cast of dozens that Simon and Overmyer have brought together here, actors that include such familiar faces as Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Khandi Alexander, Steve Zahn, Rob Brown, and Michiel Huisman. (Look for the latter as well as classical violinist Lucia Micarelli to turn up in the second episode.) While most members of the ensemble don't share very many scenes together (Melissa Leo's Toni Bernette is one of the few characters who connects the various stories), there's a sense that they're not so much playing individuals as bringing to life a community that has been chugging along for years. There's a sense with all of them of being lived-in and the performances reflect that impression: each is nuanced, low-key, and lovingly crafted. And each of the characters, over the course of the first three episodes, manages to surprise.

We're introduced to the vivid world of life in Treme by the first second line parade in the city since Katrina, a raucous affair that pays tribute to New Orleans' fiery spirit and which unites each of the neighborhood's residents as the parade passes by, a signal that life and cultural identity endures even in the face of disaster. Struggling trombone player Antoine Batiste (Pierce) shows up late to the parade after agreeing to fill in for another musician; his efforts to get his life back on track comprise a strong spine for the first few episodes. Batiste isn't totally a good guy though; he's a no-good philanderer who cheats on his girlfriend and can't make ends meet for their newborn daughter, but he's entirely lovable at the same time.

Goodman's fiery English literature professor Creighton Bernette is a radical ideas man who castigates the federal and local governments for exacerbating a natural disaster and turning it into a man-made catastrophe. While Creighton seems to act as a mouthpiece for Simon and Overmyer--at least at first--he also acts as an anchor to the piece, giving it grit and gravitas, while also serving to embody another side of New Orleans: a scholarly and passionate identity that's separate from its food or its music. Creighton is married to Toni (Leo), a civil liberties lawyer enmeshed in a case that casts a sharp light on the bureaucratic blindness of life after the storm; she's attempting to locate a missing OPP prisoner named Daymo, who happens to be the brother of Alexander's spectacularly volatile bar owner LaDonna Batiste, herself the ex-wife of Pierce's Antoine and the mother to their two sons.

Wastrel Davis McAlary (Zahn) might just be the most irritating character in the pilot--he's a local radio DJ and wannabe musician--but he manages to grow on you in the first few episodes as Davis struggles to find his way while not quite managing to keep his thoughts or actions in check as much as he should. He's involved in a casual relationship with chef and restaurateur Janette Desautel (Dickens), a woman looking to feed the residents of this neighborhood but whose attempts to keep her restaurant and her life afloat are beset with problems. (Responding to Toni's question about her house--a common greeting in these parts--she offers a tart reply, "Don't ask me about my f---ing house," that sums up her frustration and pain.)

Then there's Pierce's somber and stirring performance as Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux, a man so grimly determined to return to New Orleans that he leaves behind his family home to move into a ramshackle old bar in order to reunite his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame, and bring back the old customs in time for Mardi Gras. His stubbornness regarding his former and future home is at odds with his son, musician Delmond (Brown), who has fled New Orleans to play jazz in New York and Paris and reluctantly returns to his former home to help keep an eye on his father. (Look for Pierce's Albert to shock the hell out of you at the end of the second episode.)

Delmond's success as a professional musician is in sharp contrast, meanwhile, to the plight of street musicians Sonny (Huisman) and Annie (Micarelli), a pair of buskers whose talents are mostly wasted on the few tourists. Annie's natural ability as a fiddler, however, soon lands her some new opportunities, much to the suspicions of boyfriend Sonny, who might just be hiding a secret of his own regarding his heroic deeds during the storm and its aftermath.

Together, these individuals create a moving portrait of New Orleans following Katrina, embodying the web of conflicting emotions in which the city's residents find themselves entangled. This isn't just a tragedy, however, but also an exploration of joy, pride, and cultural identity and how things like music and food can sustain our spirits and give us something solid to hold on to.

The series also features such real-life New Orleans musicians as Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Kermit Ruffins, and many others, given the role that the music of the city plays in the series. One of my few complaints with the series is that the music is handled with a little too much reverence: scenes with musicians just jamming or recording tend to go on for far too long and often don't impact the story, whereas other uses of music--three spring to mind in the third episode--not only offer a look into the musical heritage of the city but also advance the plot and characters. (At the risk of heresy, the former feels a bit like overkill, as though the production had actually gotten these legends to drop in and then felt like they needed to do more with them than have them just make cameo appearances.)

Additionally, there's a subplot involving the law enforcement and National Guard presence in New Orleans after the storm that felt a little too one-sided to me, though this could change in subsequent episodes. Given the way that Simon and Co. showed both sides of the drug war (and politics, the media, and the school system) in The Wire, I was hoping to get at least one character directly involved with the police force to see their perspective on post-Katrina New Orleans and their struggle to keep order in a city beset by chaos. It's the rare viewpoint that's missing in an otherwise broad spectrum of perception.

It's a minor quibble but one that I hope is addressed as Treme's ten-episode series gets further underway. In the meantime, prepare to be swept away by the very human dramas that these compelling and memorable characters bring with them and the issues of class, race, gender, and politics that their struggles bring to the surface. Treme might not be The Wire but that's more than just okay: it's a neighborhood I'm more than happy to visit each week.

Treme premieres Sunday at 10 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Sianne said…
I was completely obsessed with The Wire and still wish I could watch it all over again for the first time. I'm happy to see some familiar faces (Lester! Bunk!) in Treme and am sure the rest of the cast is equally as talented. Really looking forward to this show...

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