I'll watch anything these guys decide to put on TV. I didn't know anything about this until this morning
HBO, Sunday, 10 ET/PT
* * * * (out of four)
By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
With Treme, TV's poet laureate of urban America sets his words to music.
Music — unstructured, unfiltered, spontaneous and sometimes discordant — is, after all, what first made the world take note of New Orleans and is what still plays behind our fondest memories of a city that is both quintessentially American and yet somehow totally a place unto itself. And music is what drives this endlessly rich series from The Wire's David Simon, who has teamed with Wire writer Eric Overmyer to re-create New Orleans three months after it was nearly washed away by Hurricane Katrina.
Like The Wire, Simon's brilliant five-year epic about Baltimore told mainly through the eyes of its most beleaguered (and beleaguering) citizens, Treme teems with authentic life.
Simon doesn't coddle an audience, and landing in Treme is the artistic equivalent of landing in New Orleans itself. You're surrounded by people who talk about their favorite foods, places and people without providing any background information to help you follow the discussion. You're expected to figure it out on your own, and with very little effort, you will.
But New Orleans is not Baltimore, and Treme is not The Wire — Simon is far too good a writer to simply try to transfer old tropes to a new town. The opening hours of Treme are less intense than The Wire (which immediately plunged us into Baltimore's drug trade), less dense in terms of plotting, and somewhat lighter in tone, charged through as they are by the unfettered thrum of music.
As you'd expect from a Katrina story, the characters in Treme face myriad problems. But they have a sense of hope and resilience and a good-times-roll embrace of great food and eccentricity missing in The Wire.
If strong writing is a Simon hallmark, so is an impeccable ensemble, one in which Simon veterans Wendell Pierce (The Wire), Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Khandi Alexander (The Corner) mix with more widely known actors, such as John Goodman and Steve Zahn. All play people who are trying to restart their lives: Pierce is a musician struggling to make ends meet until club work returns; Alexander is a bar owner searching for her missing brother, with the help of a tough local lawyer (Melissa Leo); Peters is a Mardi Gras "chief" determined to rebuild his tribe at any cost; Goodman is a professor driven to tell New Orleans' story to the world; and Zahn is a sometime disc jockey whose love for his city is infectious.
They talk in ways that can be amusing, confusing and, at times, a bit annoying. But if you are willing to give them time, they are likely to sing to you.
Or not. Odds are, Treme will be one of those shows that attracts an audience that is more loyal than large, though it would be unwise to read too much into that either way. HBO, it's true, often makes the odd mistake of confusing inaccessibility with quality, but it's an equal mistake to assume that unpopularity equates with artistic failure. Treme tells its story incredibly well, but it just may not be a story everyone wants to follow.
Some will hear its music and some won't. But if you do, this could be the rare TV show that makes you dance.