With long anticipation I awaited David Simon’s new HBO series, Treme (Trem-may), about the historic New Orleans section steeped in Jazz history and oozing with culture, and how this section of the city deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. David Simon, who brought HBO The Corner and Generation Kill, made television magic for 5 seasons with the cult classic television masterpiece, The Wire, about his home town, Baltimore, Maryland, or as we prefer from the shows credits and The Wire’s gritty, soulful theme song, Way Down in the Hole (written by Tom Waits), “Bodymore Murdaland.” I thought Harlem was gritty. I have friends who live there though, in beautiful apartments with huge gardens–in the borough of Manhattan. Well, after seing a little of David Simon’s and Ed Burns’s The Wire, I understood poverty, civic mismanagement, the heroin trade, corrupt police, and life in the ghetto in a whole new light. New York is candyland compared to Baltimore. Fifty years worth of television shows about New York did not equal one episode of The Wire’s gritty brand of realism.
I am quite convinced that nobody does television better than David Simon. And I was very excited to see that he was doing a show about a subject dear to me–New Orleans, on HBO. Generation Kill, the HBO series about the current war in Iraq was realistic to the laymen’s eye, if not exactly compelling. It established Alexander Skarsgard in my mind as an excellent actor (Vampire Eric, True Blood), and brought James Ransone (Ziggy, The Wire) and Lee Tergesen (Beacher, Oz) back to prominent roles on HBO. Perhaps Generation Kill was too realistic for me. I didn’t like seeing our boys under-staffed and under-equipped, struggling in the Iraqi desert fighting George Bush’s oil war.
I have been to New Orleans. I have family there. I have vacationed there with 7 of my best friends on this planet and had one of the best times in my life. New Orleans is a warm city, a real city, a historic city with French flavor, and the only place I’ve been where people own the streets, and not cars. It is also an impoverished city–last I checked, the most impoverished, where the people had a per capita income of less than $10,000 a year.
And then Katrina came. I’m not going to pretend I know enough about the storm or the George Bush fly by or the way in which our nation turned its back on one of our finest cities–the finest, aside from New York, of course, and maybe Las Vegas, which is great for totally different reasons. That’s fine and good, because I’d rather have David Simon tell it to me anyway. Finally equipped with some budget by HBO, Simon and Eric Overmayer have cast some notable stars. Steve Zahn, in his first television series, plays Deejay Davis McAlary, a musician and advocate for the people, and an unlikely political candidate who wants to sell cannabis to create revenue for the city. John Goodman plays author and New Orleans spokesperson, Creighton Bernette, now famous for a youtube rant capped off by “Fuck you, you fucking fucks!” His wife, Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), is a lawyer on a mission to find a boy lost in the system in the wake of the flood, and while she finds a little more evidence every week despite the hurdles put up by the courts and the police, the mystery of what happened to David Brooks is probably the most compelling storyline Treme has established so far, though it is sure to end predictably. Wendell Pierce (Bunk, The Wire), plays Antoine Battiste, a legendary musician struggling in post Katrina Treme, and Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon, The Wire), plays Albert Lambreaux, or “the chief”, a Mardi Gras high priest with native blood who returns to the city, but realizes that the federal government won’t allow many of his people to do the same. Kim Dickens (Joannie, Deadwood) plays a chef at a fine Treme restaurant who can cook the lights out, but who struggles to keep the lights on in her establishment, despite wowing a bunch of fancy New York chefs. And she also plays Davis McAlary’s love interest.
Khandi Alexander (The Corner, News Radio), plays Antoine Batiste’s ex. She owns a Treme bar and is the sister of the lost boy, David Brooks. The very talented actress and violinist Luicia Micarelli plays “Annie”, a fine musician stuck in an odd, abusive relationship with Jazz pianist Sonny (Michiel Huisman), struggling with heroin addiction.
Sonny and Annie (above).
There has not been one bad performance from a stellar cast that’s still gelling, and knowing David Simon, I expect every episode to be better than the last. But while New Orleans is a far better city than Baltimore, it doesn’t make for better drama. They can flood the cast with recognizable talent, no pun intended, but I’d take a bunch of nobodies with glocks and Navigators, over struggling musicians and their obscure musical terminology, even if they bring to life a city I so fondly connect with.
New Orleans deserves a show. They deserve a show about post Katrina, and they deserve that David Simon be the man to deliver it, on HBO. They deserve a second season too, which Treme has already had greenlit by HBO. Simply put though, the bar has been set too high.
Treme is one of the best shows on television right now and I’m glad to have it. Even if the production is more proof that The Wire is gone forever, and will not even be replicated by the same minds and similar faces, airlifted to a different locale.
Treme, 10 PM, Sundays on HBO. It may not be what you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a show worth your time.
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