What the flood couldn’t take

June 3, 2010

Amy Muldoon reviews Treme, a new series about post-Katrina New Orleans by the creators of The Wire.

NOT 15 minutes into the pilot of Treme--HBO's new drama about post-Katrina New Orleans--and a character complains, "I never thought I'd see even this much of it; this goddamn bridge. Gretna police standing there with their guns out, waitin' to make us walk the hell back. And here we are driving the other way like it didn't even happen."

Frontloading a reference to an incident like the Gretna Bridge is just the beginning of Treme's obvious sympathies. Treme (pronounced tre-MAY) wears the bitterness of New Orleans' population, its sorrow, confusion and only occasional joy on its sleeve with no pretense of being unbiased or politically objective.

Created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer--the team who wrote and produced HBO's The Wire--if the show's characters are occasionally dogmatic or self-righteous, the show itself never is. The facts simply speak for themselves.

Set simply "three months after," the loosely related ensemble cast represents the cultural fabric of New Orleans threatened with displacement following the storm. Bar owner LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), hires civil rights lawyer Toni (Melissa Leo) to find her brother David who has gone missing in the criminal justice system during the storm.

Wendell Pierce in HBO's Treme
Wendell Pierce in HBO's Treme

Toni's husband Creighton (John Goodman), a Tulane professor with a knack for obscenity, becomes a local celebrity following his adventures on YouTube. Semi-serious musician and self-righteous brat Davis (Steve Zahn) rubs shoulders with professional and aspiring musicians, like trombonist Antoine (Wendell Pierce), LaDonna's ex who is always a day late and a dollar short.

Davis' friend with-sometimes-benefits Janette (Kim Dickens) is a talented chef trying to keep her restaurant afloat after insurance fails to cover the cost of storm damage. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), head of Mardi Gras Indian tribe The Keepers of the Flame, finds himself embroiled in a fight to demand the right of return for his tribe and their families.

Street musician Annie (Lucia Micarelli) grapples with the potential for a real career without her partner Sonny (Michiel Huisman).

RETURNING TO destroyed homes, missing family members, financial hardship and corrupt institutions, the drama of Treme is strikingly real. Unlike other popular television shows, the struggles faced by the characters are not self-involved or clichéd.

Review: Television

Treme, written by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, starring Khandi Alexander, Melissa Leo and John Goodman. HBO, check local listings.

There are no love triangles or trivial personal intrigues at center stage; there is plenty of real conflict in daily life that drives characters to change and evolve in interesting ways. Day by day, the fallout of the storm challenges the assumptions, aspirations and identities of the characters--often in a political manner.

The emotional impact of Treme doesn't come from cheap shocks, which are currently commonplace in drama: there is no gratuitous violence, almost no sex, betrayal is so prevalent it is simply blasé. The writers don't torture their characters for entertainment, nor do they exploit graphic and painful incidents, for example by dwelling on a decomposed neighbor's body.

But a confrontation between Albert and an insurance agent is gut-wrenching; Janette's speech to her employees about her failing finances ends with her saying "I think I'm going to throw up," and you are right there with her.

Many of all the great attributes of The Wire are here: tremendous acting, understated writing (one of the most stunning scenes of a later episode is of a character silently looking around a parking lot of tractor trailers), interesting and compelling female and Black characters, the lack of easy solutions and redemption, and a phenomenal sense of place and the people who have created it.

The feeling of a working-class city fighting for its identity against the malevolent forces of change is perpetually present, even when cast members aren't shouting about the existential threat that gentrification represents.

There is also The Wire's total immersion in a culture that may be completely unknown. The writers don't rely on a lot of exposition, which given the unique culture, heavy accents, and deeply felt shared trauma can leave you scratching your head or reaching for Wikipedia. But if specific terms or references aren't explicitly clear, the significance to the characters and their emotional implications are conveyed quite powerfully.

The real neighborhood of Treme is known for its multicultural musical and social history, but there isn't exactly racial harmony. From the obvious refusal by the government to allow displaced working-class and poor Black people to return to undamaged housing, to Davis' overzealous adoption of New Orleans' Black cultural heritage (to the point of using the n-word and attacking other whites in Treme as "gentrifiers"), not all is well in the Crescent City.

And the writers wisely let the audience sit uncomfortably with this reality rather than offer feel-good resolutions.

FOR VIEWERS who found the sympathy for the police in The Wire hard to watch, Treme offers a very different perspective. The criminal justice system is depicted as callous, self-serving, corrupt and racist. Black characters don't fare well in the hands of the police. Even for viewers familiar with the horrific treatment of prisoners during and after the storm, the trials and indignities Toni and LaDonna are forced to endure looking for David are shocking.

Were it not for the music, Treme would often be hard to watch. In fact, the show is often literally hard to watch, as much of the city lacks power and lives in the dark. But the music lightens life in a way that is profound and electric, not because it covers the pain, but because it illuminates it.

From the gorgeous and rambunctious opening sequence (to the tune of "Treme Song" by John Boutté), that combines footage of parades, the flood and oddly elegant patterns of water damage and mold, to the recurring cameos of real-life New Orleans musicians, New Orleans is simply unimaginable without its music.

Jazz, R&B, Cajun, country, blues, funk, hip-hop all flow--sometimes literally--in the streets. When people are moved or unified by the music it isn't a Disney-fied fantasy, it's a social release from an enormous collective suffering.

True to the central place music occupies, the opening scene of the pilot depicts the negotiation between parade organizers and band members over how much they will be paid for performing in the first "second line" since the storm (an informal parade led by a marching band with a lot of spontaneous participation and dancing).

The scene encapsulates the many interwoven themes of the show: music, money, how high the storm waters rose, the damage it left, the push and pull between New Orleans' inhabitants scraping to get by. And the importance of a new hat for marching. But once the music starts, with the whole neighborhood in tow, nothing else matters. Life isn't just pain and struggle: it's hope, it's joy, and it's a party.

Further Reading

From the archives