'Treme' review: The soul of a city

clarke-peters-treme.jpgDavid Simon famously does not like to spend much time with exposition in his TV shows, and that's the case with "Treme" as well. He and co-creator Eric Overmyer drop you right into the middle of post-Katrina New Orleans, with no apologies or real map as to who or what you're watching, at least not at first.

But even if Sunday's (April 11) premiere has you heading to Google to find out about second line or Mardi Gras Indians, you can get a decent sense of what the series is trying to do just from its opening credits.

There are a few shots of happier times in New Orleans and images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but mostly what you see are stark shots of walls with stains and mold marking where the flood waters reached. Yet playing underneath it is an impossibly catchy song -- "Treme Song" by John Boutte, which has been happily stuck in my head for days -- that speaks to the vibrancy New Orleans still possessed even a short time after the storm.

"Treme" comes to HBO two years after the end of Simon's last series, "The Wire," which a fair number of critics -- myself included -- think is the best show in the history of television. "Treme" shares a few actors with that show -- most notably New Orleans native Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters (pictured above) -- and a similarly high level of attention to getting the visual and spiritual details of its location right, as well as the drop-you-in-the-middle narrative structure of both "The Wire" and Simon's Iraq war miniseries "Generation Kill."

But you shouldn't go into "Treme" expecting "The Wire: New Orleans." It's a looser story, driven more by character than plot, and despite its setting actually feels a little more upbeat than "The Wire." Through three episodes, there are enough funny, frustrating, sad and beautiful moments to make me hope "Treme" sticks around for a while.

The show begins three months after Hurricane Katrina and introduces us to a cross-section of people who live and work in the neighborhood of Faubourg Treme (pronounced treh-MAY). Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, a trombone player trying to scrape together gigs in a city where most of the clubs haven't yet re-opened. His ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander of "CSI: Miami" and Simon's miniseries "The Corner") runs a bar that still has a tarp for a roof and is trying to find her brother, a jail inmate who's been sent to who knows where in the storm's aftermath.

Lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) is helping LaDonna out, and is married to Tulane professor Creighton (John Goodman), who's building a side career as the go-to spokesman for frustrated New Orleanians (he has a great scene in the opening moments of the premiere where he clashes with a smug British reporter). Albert Lambreaux (Peters) has just returned to the city and is trying to rebuild both his wrecked house and his Mardi Gras krewe, with prospects looking dim on both fronts. Rob Brown ("The Express") plays his son, a talented musician who's reluctant to leave better gigs in New York. Chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, "Deadwood") is struggling to keep her restaurant afloat and with her on-and-off guy, musician/DJ/gadfly Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn).

Some characters know one another, or at least cross paths, but the show seems more interested in telling their individual stories to add up to a larger whole: one of people who seem to know, three months on, that outside help won't be coming in any meaningful way and have decided to rebuild the best way they can, by preserving or rebuilding what they can of the city they still love.

The acting is uniformly excellent, as you'd expect from a cast like this one, and "Treme" also features a lot of great music. There are several extended scenes in the early episodes of musicians at work, from a pair of French Quarter buskers (Michiel Huisman and real-life violinist Lucia Micarelli, who's mesmerizing) to such luminaries as Dr. John, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. Those scenes don't move the plot a whole bunch, but they do help impart a sense of place in addition to being great fun to listen to and watch.

Knowing the way Simon works, "Treme" doesn't reveal even half of what it will end up covering in its first three episodes. But there is so much texture to those first three that there's no question that I'm sticking around to see what comes next.
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"Treme" premieres at 10 p.m. ET Sunday, April 11 on HBO.

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Photo credit: HBO