"That sounds like rebirth."
There are many familiar faces in Eric Overmyer and David Simon's Treme, which premiered last night on HBO — familiar to those who are in the David Simon business, as one HBO executive describes herself. There is Khandi Alexander (LaDonna) and Clarke Peters (Albert) from the miniseries The Corner, and there is Oscar nominee Melissa Leo (Toni) from Homicide, and of course, there is Wendell Pierce as Bunk… I mean Antoine Baptiste. Mr. Pierce and Mr. Peters (formerly Lester Freamon) were from The Wire, television's greatest drama as sobbed by critics everywhere.
The Wire looms large over Treme, but Treme isn't The Wire, nor do we want it to be. Who can live through that again? The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns' heartbreaking HBO series about the failing institutions of the American city in general and Baltimore in particular, was bleak — addicting and affecting, but bleak. Bleak, bleak, bleak! Treme is something different, with that same, familiar Simonian complexity, but still different. Treme opens, three months after the Katrina, in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, to a riot of color and in full sunlight, no less, at a spontaneous second line parade, so named because it doesn't have the necessary parade permits, an under-the-counter Mardi Gras procession, so to speak. The second line parade is "a New Orleans funeral with no body," and the spectacle sets the tone immediately for the series: swagger and joy — the two things necessary for continued existence.
Treme is the intersecting stories of those who stuck around after Katrina. The series is about the hurricane but more importantly also about the survival – what happens after.
One of the most striking examples of this is Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, also a familiar face, this time from Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke. Ms. LeBlanc's first-hand report on the rising waters, her desperation and fear for her life and the lives of her family, was central to Lee's tremendous contribution to the real history of one of America's nightmares. Here, in Treme, she plays the girlfriend of Antoine Baptiste and mother to his baby, a rebirth, and an instance of Simon's insistent use of local to resonate universal. In The Wire he used a young Baltimore woman, Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, with no acting experience to portray Felicia "Snoop" Pearson: "perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series" according to Stephen King who knows his "terrifyings."
Some of the stories we are introduced to in this pilot are conventional television ones: a missing person, bruised and broken relationships, rebuilding houses and lives, but they are all unique in where they take place — one of the world's singular cities. Restaurant owner Janette Desautel's (Kim Dickens) attempts to soldier on with a quality menu seems a small anecdote in the larger swirl of narrative, but it makes for fascinating television and not just because I'm hooked on Top Chef. Good restaurants are the perfect storm of art, commerce, and cuisine, and as microcosms of larger society, I've often wondered why they don't make appearances in television fiction more often. Artie's restaurants in The Sopranos were always welcome respite from the horrors of Tony's home and business.
A warning: as in The Wire, the viewer must bring patience and fortitude. As foreign a subculture as the drug wars of urban Baltimore might have been to the audience, so are cultural aspects of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Much of the dialogue is realistic, meaning undecipherable, and the cultural references can fly by unnoticed.
Perseverance will be eventually rewarded no doubt, and besides, I got a big kick out of seeing Sean Gormley (at right), the Dublin actor, portray the "f***in', Limey vulture" BBC interviewer who gets the worst of John Goodman. Imagine how many other inside jokes I'll get upon subsequent viewings.
Mr. Goodman as Creighton Bernette, the college professor who goes ballistic on an NPR reporter as well, not playing favorites, and Steve Zahn as a local musician and DJ based upon real life New Orleans institution Davis Rogan, round out the cast with added color as if more color is needed. A cameo by an inaudible Declan McManus (aka Elvis Costello) at one of Kermit Ruffins' gigs makes for sublime television, but the moment of being, as Virginia Woolf would say, in the episode was Clarke Peters in his Mardi Gras Indian costume. The dignified Mr. Peters in a substantial yellow outfit that would make Big Bird pause personifies the aforementioned swagger and joy; it is a musical note in a song that I hope plays for a long time.
Director Agnieszka Holland might have been known more for her Oscar-nominated films (Europa, Europa) than her television work until she signed on to direct The Wire's "Moral Midgetry" and "Corner Boys." It was a long way from Ms. Holland's direction of the children's classic The Secret Garden to the secret world of Baltimore's Stringer Bell. Now, with David Simon, she's in "the city that care forgot," behind the cameras in Treme's first episode "Do You Know What It Means." It means that David Simon and Eric Overmyer have given us the beginnings of another brilliant television series.