Ken Tucker
April 12, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

From its opening moments, the opening episode of Treme captured 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 — created by The Wire‘s David Simon and named after a neighborhood in the city known for its rich cultural heritage — follows a wide array of citizens struggling to rebuild their lives.

It was best to let Treme just carry you along in its flow. The series’ rhythm echoes its music, with lots of fluid tracking shots. It’s not a drama with a main plot plus subplots — an hour with the three- or four-act structure. It moved along so that the primary characters in every scene could have been the star of his or her own show. That’s true whether we’re talking about Wendell Pierce’s randy trombone player, or Steve Zahn’s dippy DJ, or Kim Dickens’ struggling restauranteur, or Khandi Alexander’s stalwart bar owner, or Clarke Peters’ stoic Big Chief Indian, or? well, you get the idea.

If John Goodman’s university professor and Melissa Leo’s lawyer state the politics of Treme most explicitly (you’re not going to hear many people on TV, on the news or in any other drama, refer to Katrina as Goodman’s character does — as ”a federally induced disaster”), the series political subtext carries through into every life onscreen. Zahn would not have the free-form-radio job he has, or Peters the history as a Mardi Gras parade participant, or Alexander the troubles she has getting the roof of Gigi’s Lounge repaired, were it not for the political and social situations that exist all around them.

Treme is a break from the genre Simon knows best: the crime story. In Homicide and The Wire, Simon’s achievement was to make people defined primarily as criminals by the society around them into fully-detailed human beings. Treme is more like Simon’s great HBO miniseries The Corner, in which (mostly) black characters are presented with the full range of emotions and actions that white characters are routinely granted on TV. In other words, Treme is really of a piece with all of Simon’s work, in the sense that it’s the work of a supremely skilled reporter who knows how to create vivid drama.

The recent death of one of Treme‘s key writers and producers, David Mills, now hangs over Treme like a shroud. Yet that grief is partially lifted in the musical choices here that I suspect, from knowing Mills’ taste, must have been influenced by him. New Orleans versions of George Clinton’s ”Pumpin’ It Up”? Of having Zahn play ”Shake Ya Ass” on the radio? Having Melissa Leo and John Goodman’s characters take a sly swipe at NPR by saying that ”the ‘N’ stands for ‘nuance”’? Those are David Mills touches, no matter who really wrote them.

I think Treme is off to a great start.

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