Writer/producer Eric Overmyer was quoted in a New York Times Magazine article last month, but it’s worth repeating: “Treme is not the The Wire.” He went on: “Those who are expecting The Wire or wanting The Wire may be frustrated.”
To recap: The Wire was HBO’s critically acclaimed series that delved into all manner of crime and corruption in Baltimore, where the series’s creator, David Simon, had been a reporter for the Sun. Treme (pronounced truh-MAY, and debuting this Sunday at 10 pm on HBO) is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Two crumbling, crime-ridden major municipalities. But The Wire — despite its intricacy and nuance — was a crime drama. Treme is not — unless you take into account the criminal negligence of the federal government, both in failing to take adequate steps to prevent the disastrous post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans and in not coming quickly to the city’s aid.
Simon, Overmyer, and the rest of their team are not shy about pointing fingers and setting the record straight — albeit elegantly. John Goodman, as an outraged Tulane University English professor, gets to sound off the most directly, especially when pointing out that it was a flood, not a hurricane, that wrecked the city — the result of an inadequate levee system that the feds had been warned about for years. We’re also given quick dramatic illustrations of various post-Katrina inequities, from education to housing to the criminal-justice system.
But Simon (who made his name with Homicide: Life on the Street) has never been one for easy didacticism. He loves subcultures, the conflicts of race and class and economics — and New Orleans is rich in all of it. As with The Wire, he throws you into the midst of his characters’ lives and lets you sweat the context. The first episode opens three months after Katrina with a street parade through the battered title neighborhood — “the first second line since the storm.” And if you don’t know what a second line is, or what a Mardi Gras Indian is, or who ’Fess was, then you’re pretty much on your own.
Not that the show doesn’t eventually fill you in. This long-time New Orleans lover was pleased to see Treme get the details right — from the music and the Mardi Gras Indian chants and the best place to get a hangover breakfast to the flood lines, black mold, and post-Katrina blight. And the first three episodes made available for review introduce a talented ensemble cast that includes Steve Zahn as a ne’er-do-well musician, Melissa Leo as Goodman’s attorney wife, and Wire regulars Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce as, respectively, a returning-home Mardi Gras Indian chief and a musician with poor impulse control. Scenes are also populated with non-actor New Orleans residents like trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and real-life Big Chief Monk Boudreaux There’s plenty to suck you into the lives of these characters as they struggle to get back on track. Particularly good is the class-conscious story of Khandi Alexander as a woman trying to keep her family’s bar business alive and find her brother (who was arrested before the storm), as well as maintain her new marriage to a dentist who has relocated to Baton Rouge with her two sons.