Apart from a certain football game that took place in Miami, nothing in recent times has caused as much anticipation among the people of New Orleans as HBO's new TV series Treme. More than a year has passed since the film crews and equipment trucks first invaded our streets, and one thing is for sure: Nearly everyone in town already seems to have an opinion about Treme, or at least some well-reasoned concerns. Will the show trivialize the city's culture? Can it accurately portray the aftermath of the storm and New Orleans' subsequent rebirth? Will Kermit and Shorty finally become national stars? And if Treme becomes a Sopranos-sized hit, can we all live with a huge and permanent wave of well-meaning, boudin-seeking tourists?
It may take a while for the show's full impact to become clear. But Sunday, April 11, the long wait ends when HBO airs the Treme's 80-minute pilot. And the news is very good: A close viewing of the series' first three episodes reveals a fully realized work that succeeds where so many other films and TV shows about our city have not. With help from an extraordinary cast and crew, Treme co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer have managed to capture something of the undefinable essence of New Orleans. All hometown cheerleading aside, Treme may be the most powerful and engaging TV series to come along in years.
Beginning three months after the storm and proceeding in weekly installments that approximate real time over that winter, Treme delivers a kaleidoscopic view of post-Katrina New Orleans through the lives of characters often based on real New Orleanians. Images of flooded streets and physical destruction thankfully are kept to a minimum, seen mostly in the rapid-fire credits sequence that opens each episode. But the interlocking stories tell the tale. The restaurateur struggling to withstand her diminished customer base; the Mardi Gras Indian chief searching for his storm-tossed tribe; the Tulane professor who can't discuss Katrina without exploding in anti-government rage — these and many other storylines come together in a vivid portrait of a city unmistakably in crisis.
Simon and Overmyer have covered this sort of turf before. They worked together on Simon's earlier and much-celebrated HBO series The Wire, which mounted a similarly complex view of Baltimore's crumbling urban landscape. But unlike those of The Wire, Treme's characters seem to breathe real air right out of the gate. The ensemble cast, featuring Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters (both of The Wire), Kim Dickens, Steve Zahn, John Goodman and others, deserves a ton of credit for bringing well-written characters to life and delivering on Simon's and Overmyer's dreams of authenticity.
As convincing as those words and performances are, it's the music that pushes Treme over the top. Music flows in and out of Treme just as it does on the streets of New Orleans. The debut episode reaches an artistic peak about half-way through in a wordless three-minute sequence cut to Louis Prima's gorgeous "Buona Sera" as it wafts out of the WWOZ studio and across the city. People laugh and fight, play with their kids or savor a drink on the porch, all in the most magical place on earth. It's almost enough to bring a tear to your eye, whether you fought that hurricane with your own two hands or breezed into town just last week.
Who knew the details of our daily lives could become the stuff of such high drama, even high art? Oh, that's right. We all did.