According to Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), New Orleans is “a city that lives in the imagination of the world.” But the success of Treme, HBO’s brilliant and multifaceted post-Katrina NOLA drama, stems not from the fictitious (though it is fiction), but from the way in which creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer have captured the reality of the famous city. This will come as no surprise to fans of the team responsible for Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, shows that went a long way toward demystifying the streets of Baltimore. What may surprise viewers, especially those who tune in expecting the easy exhilaration of a familiar crime narrative, is that Treme has the opportunity to dig even deeper than the critical darling The Wire.
“The media,” says English professor Creighton, “likes a simple narrative that they and their listeners can get their tiny brains around.” Well, the “simplest” narrative in Treme follows Creighton’s wife, Toni (Melissa Leo), a civil rights attorney hired to find the brother of LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), an easily angered bar owner. Both are frustrated by the way the city has fallen apart, and both keep running into the red tape of a government that would rather pass the blame than set things right. For the most part, however, Treme manages to avoid talking about politics directly, focusing instead on the strength of its characters and their passions, which in this case mainly revolve around the city of New Orleans—hence the title of the first episode, and a recurring theme of the show, “Do You Know What It Means?”
To trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), New Orleans is the only home he knows, a place whose respect for his music enables him to scrape out a living from gig to gig, even though it’s only been three months since Hurricane Katrina. To someone like the roguish, music-loving Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), it’s the only place there is, and he’s sickened not by the fact that his neighbors are gay, but that they’re rich, ignorant, classical-loving agents of gentrification, a further erosion of the musical culture that built the city. To struggling restaurateur Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), it’s a place that gives back as much as it gets, which is why she’ll do whatever she can to make ends meet until the economy rebounds and the insurance checks finally clear. To someone like Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a tough-as-nails Mardi Gras Indian chief set on rebuilding the physical landmarks as well as the cultural trademarks, it’s a place whose traditions must not be ignored. And to people like us, the viewers, it’s the instantly recognizable home we’ve never known, the sort of place we’re drawn to invest in. Even Delmond (Rob Brown), who reluctantly returns home on his father Albert’s behalf, can’t deny how happy he is to be standing on a Sixth Ward stage again, brow furrowed as he blows his horn.
Treme is hypnotically entertaining and, with a lushness even to the muddied floors of abandoned homes, it’s easy on the eyes. However, there’s an accusatory tone to the show; it has no patience for tourists, and demands that viewers make an investment. For instance, Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a streetwise busker, grits his teeth while pocketing change and taking requests, but can’t hold back from asking why people suddenly care for the Ninth Ward, a place these Wisconsin yokels had never heard of pre-Katrina. Even among the musicians, it’s understood that “Everybody loves New Orleans music. New Orleans people…” But things like harsh pride and regretful acceptance are what make Treme so captivating: As with all of Simon’s shows, there’s an understanding that this is how people really talk—directly, sloppily, or jangled as that might be. Nailing these verbal rhythms is especially important for a show about music: It’s not a matter of playing notes, it’s about what you put into them.
And Treme puts everything into every scene. The camerawork is rich and the direction squeezes every nuance from the actors. The city’s history has been painstakingly researched and effortlessly inserted into the writing. As a result, the moments—or notes—that make up this show are all that much richer, that much livelier. This also grants the show a special sort of shorthand, one that is used to communicate a great deal in musical montages (establishing shots, one might say, of the soul), but also in the sorts of quick scenes that a large ensemble show requires to advance all of the subplots without running into a wall of exposition. Toni warns Davis, “You do not motherfuck the National Guard.” His half-broken reply: “I just want my city back.” Our trust in the creators also allows Treme to riff (as jazz must), which leads to the sort of inventive scenes not usually found on television. It’s one thing to catch Antoine with his pants down, sleeping with a dancer in her FEMA trailer; it’s another to see him with his heart out, pausing drunkenly on the street for a duet—one musician to another—with Sonny’s girlfriend, the violin-playing Annie (Lucia Micarelli).
By the third episode, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” the show has developed so much character that even simple glances are steeped in meaning. Albert has reassembled some of the Mardi Gras Indians, and now they stand together, keening for a fallen comrade, their music and emotions boiling in perfect parallel to the show’s slow yet captivating momentum. Suddenly, we hear—and then see—a bus blithely labeled “Katrina Tours,” cameras flashing behind its tinted windows, and we see the look in Albert’s eyes as he stares the tourists down. “People want to know what happened,” says the disrespectfully amiable driver. And it’s true, we do. But at least with Treme, which is neither timely (five years later) nor luridly touristy, one doesn’t feel bad about looking on. New Orleans, after all, already lives in our imaginations; why shouldn’t it also live in our hearts?