Treme, the new drama from the creator of The Wire, David Simon, captures a musical culture in a way that’s unlike anything that has ever been done on television or in the movies. Set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina, Treme — named after a neighborhood in the city known for its rich cultural heritage — follows a wide array of citizens struggling to rebuild their lives.
There. I got the high praise and the obligatory just-the- facts summary out of the way. Now, then: Hoo boy, are you going to have fun watching this. It bursts with great rhythm & blues, funk, and jazz music (bouncing covers of everything from George Clinton’s ”Pumpin’ It Up” to Bobby Womack’s ”It’s All Over Now”). It’s got superb performances from two Wire vets, Wendell Pierce (as devilish trombone player Antoine) and Clarke Peters (as the leader of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe). There’s also Steve Zahn, in his first TV series, playing a ditzy DJ; John Goodman as a righteous English professor; and Khandi Alexander (forget CSI: Miami — this is her best work since 2000’s The Corner, another Simon project) as Ladonna, a bar owner. Add cameos by Dr. John, Elvis Costello, the genius record producer Allen Toussaint, and many lesser-known but terrific musicians as both players and actors (go get Trombone Shorty’s new album, Backatown, now!), and Treme explodes with pleasure.
And pain. Without becoming a pious bummer, the show never lets you forget the unending tragedy in New Orleans: parents looking for missing relatives; government policies that increase red tape and anguish; and local businesses trying, heroically, to remain in a place where money, food, and electricity are in short supply. ”I just want my city back,” moans Zahn’s Davis at one point, and our hearts go out to a chef played by Deadwood’s Kim Dickens, struggling to keep her small restaurant open.
There are times when Treme’s large cast, overlapping dialogue, and gliding tracking shots can remind you of the film work of director Robert Altman (think Thieves Like Us or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, not his condescending country-music film Nashville). Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer use a variety of writers and directors while achieving a unified tone and look that gives the damp rubble of Treme a muted visual beauty. Simon has little use for subtle arguments; you know Goodman’s prof is speaking the auteur’s thoughts when he says the government should be ”put on trial” for pre-and post-Katrina policies. The artistic achievement of Treme is that it blends bluntness with the nuances of gorgeous music. A