TV Review: Flawless, Mesmerizing Rhythm of HBO’s ‘Treme’
CHICAGO – For fans of “The Wire,” expectations are ludicrously high for HBO’s “Treme” (pronounced “tre-MAY”), the newest dramatic work from David Simon and Eric Overmyer. Two of the creative voices behind one of the best television programs of all time have turned their focus from Baltimore to New Orleans and lost none of their dramatic resonance, delivering an incredibly rewarding show that will have viewers tapping their feet to the rhythm of a city that doesn’t just “enjoy” or “play” music, it needs it to survive.
Television Rating: 5.0/5.0
Unlike a lot of programs or films about musical cities (the many Motown stories, even most musician biopics, etc.), the healing and communicative power of music is not merely the background for melodrama on “Treme”. In a show named after a musical section of New Orleans, it is a part of the fabric of the lives of every single character.
Treme: Wendell Pierce.
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO
Consequently, “Treme” opens with a toe-tapping parade, the first to take place after Hurricane Katrina (a title card merely says “Three Months After,” knowing the audience is smart enough to know “After” what). After watching people dance in the debris-filled streets, we meet a trombone player named Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce of “The Wire”), arriving late and coming up short on cab fare (a recurring bit in the premiere).
Treme: Steve Zahn.
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO
Antoine joins the parade that continues near the house of the next two major characters to be introduced - restaurant owner Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens of “Deadwood”), who wakes up in the bed of DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn). Janette heads to work, where most of her staff still hasn’t returned and she struggles to get the food to feed her patrons. Davis heads to the parade and seems reinvigorated by the return of the tradition to a city so in need of them to stay alive.
Eventually, we will meet several other major characters whose lives intertwine as they also handle their own plotlines. There’s Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters of “The Wire”), a proud man who returns to find a home that has been destroyed in the flood. Instead of leaving, he decides to clean out and live in a bar not from it. Constantly told by family (including son Delmond played by Rob Brown) and friends that he should leave town, he refuses to give up on his life and his city.
There’s Toni (Melissa Leo of “Frozen River”) and Creighton Bernette (John Goodman). He is an outspoken speaker for not just the city he loves but against those who refuse to recognize the errors of man that resulted in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. We meet him unleashing fury on a British reporter who dares suggest that perhaps the city shouldn’t be rebuilt. She is a lawyer who has made many friends and just as many enemies in the city. One of the former happens to be the ex-wife of Antoine, a bar owner named Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), who needs Toni’s help to find her brother. They believe he was on the bridge in the days after the Hurricane but no one has heard from him since.
Treme: Khandi Alexander, Venida Evans, Melissa Leo.
Photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Clearly, “Treme” does not shy away from the pain and suffering of post-Katrina New Orleans. But it is not morbid or depressing. It is a show about greeting death with expressions of life. Albert’s home may be unsalvageable but the costume he dons later in the premiere is so full of life that it’s clear he’s not giving up on anything. Davis has undeniable anger at the management warping his city’s musical landscape (he’s forced to play a pledge CD as a DJ and he rebels at a Tower Records closing up shop) but he shows that through love, passion, and a beer at Vaughan’s watching his friends play and trying to get the courage to talk to Elvis Costello, who happens to be in the audience. The opening number may be a band singing “It’s All Over Now” but it feels like a resurgence; the pain is what is over and it’s time to celebrate again.
Very few television writers find a way to merge the real and the artistic in the same way as David Simon. Viewers of “Treme” can dissect the song choices (it’s not a coincidence that Zahn’s character plays “Bouncin’ Back” by Mystikal as he so desperately wants his city to do just that) or symbolically analyze the fact that the premiere opens and closes with a musical parade; one celebrating a return of life to the city and the other mourning the departure of a singular one.
Or they can merely bask in Simon & Overmyer’s amazing sense of character and fly-on-the-wall aesthetic that immediately makes the ensemble feel completely real. Like the best of Robert Altman’s work (“Treme” is very reminiscent of “Nashville” in its use of music as a communal force), “Treme” is dense with artistic, symbolic choices but never once feels like it on a character level. These people aren’t symbols. They’re three-dimensional and feel instantly genuine.
Treme: Clarke Peters.
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO
Of course, they’re not and the cast of “Treme” deserves immediate credit for working perfectly in a TV world that allows for no false moves. Like “The Wire,” a perceived lead at one point quickly recedes to the background and allows another actor to take the spotlight. It’s not unlike the musical parades of the show in that everyone gets a solo.
In the first two episodes, stand-out solo awards would have to go to Alexander (so great on “The Corner,” Simon’s pre-“Wire” 2000 mini-series and unable to get another great part until now), the always-underrated Zahn, and Wendell Pierce, but this is the kind of program where it could be another actor or actress stealing the show in weeks three or four. It’s the kind of show that ensemble awards were made for. (As if Simon programs ever win the awards they should. Total Emmy nods for “The Wire”? Two. No wins.)
Even the best television of the last decade often finds it difficult to maintain realism and believable character action while also presenting viewers with intriguing plotlines. That’s what’s so borderline revelatory about “Treme”. Like some of the best songs ever released, it is both beautifully composed but also touches something human and genuine at the same time. “Treme” is a fictional creation, but it feels so organic that one could be easily understood if they assumed it’s all true. In the most important ways, it is.