In some circles, “Treme” could be the most anticipated television show ever. These ever-growing circles encompass those who have vocally declared creator David Simon’s previous series “The Wire” to be one of the greatest of all time — membership includes a smart multitude of critics, writers, professors and even President Obama. It’s good company.
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For those uninitiated to the “David Simon is God Club,” let’s get this out of the way: “The Wire” truly has good claim to be the greatest ever. It’s a richly complicated, superbly written portrayal of a city’s decay, examined from the perspective of the police force, the criminals it hounds and the corrupt tangle of bureaucracy that’s supposed to oversee it all. Still, that’s only half the picture. The real brilliance of “The Wire” is that it exposes the how and why behind real-life problems through an impressively thorough, complexly human, Great Books-esque narrative. It is unequivocal True Art.
So for “Treme,” the bar is stratospheric. But is it even possible for Simon’s new show — or any TV drama for that matter — to live up to the institution-cracking, perspective-altering “The Wire?” Well, the beautiful part is that for Simon and his loyal nation of Simonites, “Treme” doesn’t have to. The show, while occasionally evoking the muckraking, let’s-look-deeply-and-critically-at-this-mess sentiments of “The Wire,” exists on an incomparable plane. Sprawling, ambitious and painfully true to life, yes; but “Treme” is about exploring one’s intimate and spiritual relationship with his or her city. It’s a largely optimistic narrative, with adversity and the human spirit as its subjects and music in its soul. “The Wire” was about bureaucracy, government and institutions. “Treme” is about the individual.
The show is set in New Orleans, three months after Hurricane Katrina, and the pilot includes plenty of heart-sinking shots of the city’s decimation. It follows a group of musicians, business owners and other locals who are reconfiguring their lives after the disaster.
Like “The Wire,” there’s a troupe of characters who could be called the show’s “stars.” There’s Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, “The Wire”), a trombonist who gets by on a gig-to-gig basis and can barely pay his cab fare, and Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn, “Saving Silverman”) is a charmingly obnoxious, spliff-smoking guitarist and radio DJ.
Non-musicians include Creighton Bernette (John Goodman, “The Princess and the Frog”), a rabble-rousing college professor and proud New Orleans native, and Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, “The Wire”), a Mardi Gras Indian intent on restoring a destroyed bar as well as his tribe’s presence in the Big Easy. And the list goes on.
Obviously, for a show so dense, the 80-minute pilot had to take pains to introduce the labyrinth of characters and their situations, and in so doing, was a little light on plot development. But brilliant flashes that hinted at the show’s promise were readily apparent. The production itself is done right; it’s directed beautifully, with both the city’s grandeur and destruction captured through the lens. Music informs every scene, whether it comes out through the Sun Ra poster beaming from the wall of McAlary’s bedroom or the trombone that Batiste puts up for collateral when he doesn’t have cash for the cabbie.
Still, behind the ebullient traditional New Orleans music and Simon’s trademark humor, there is real sadness. The seemingly simple recurring question “How’s your house?” takes on a special resonance for those who lost everything after the levees broke. Restaurateur and chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, “Friday Night Lights”) twice replies “Don’t ask me about my fucking house,” communicating that among all things lost or destroyed, the devastation of the home is particularly painful.
“Treme” features essentially personal stories — sad, hopeful, angry, carefree and otherwise. We’ve seen what Simon can do when tackling big-city organizations. Now, he has turned his sights on something much more intimate — the human soul. It looks to be similarly compelling.