by Kevin Allman
There's a moment at the beginning of Treme where a sign flashes by, a sign painted on the outside of the (fictional) Treme bar Gi-Gi's. The bar isn't real, and neither is the sign, but you've seen the sign before on innumerable bars of the back streets of New Orleans: painted script with a list of don'ts (No White T's, No Knives, No Curlers). It's a tiny thing, but it is exactly precise, and it is exactly right, and it's the mark of a television show that may get more things right about New Orleans than any other before it.
Ever since Treme began filming in New Orleans, there have been two questions on the minds of locals: Is it real? and Is it good? Based on the first two episodes, the answers are: It's as real as any television show ever about New Orleans (with the possible exception of Frank's Place), it's already good...and it stands the chance of being great, a cable drama with the promise to stand alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under.
Set three months after Katrina and the federal flood, Treme announces from its opening credits that it's not a dirge for the city (the theme is John Boutte's joyous Treme Song), and yet it's serious. Within the first 20 minutes, a Tulane English professor played by John Goodman (and based not so loosely on the real-life professor and blogger Ashley Morris) corrects a smirky British TV newsman about what inundated the city: the failure of the federal levees, not Katrina itself. Later, while being interviewed by NPR, he explodes all over again, slamming down the phone and saying in complete exasperation: Lake Wobegon. God-dammit.
Those initial post-storm stages of emotion exasperation, fury, tears and, finally, oh-screw-it informs every frame of Treme through the brilliant words of a writing team that includes producer David Simon, Eric Overmyer, Lolis Eric Elie, Tom Piazza, the late David Mills, and more. They provide exchanges like You take on much water? We're up on Octavia which are likely gibberish to a non-New Orleanian audience. No matter; they'll get the gist.
Certainly it'll be an auditory sense-memory for any New Orleanian to hear the crispy sound of a blue tarp flapping in the breeze; as one character says, That goddamn blue plastic tarp flapping up there I can hear it in my sleep. And when another sits down to a plate of scrambled eggs and suddenly bursts into tears for no immediate reason whatsoever it's real, it's good, and it's really good. And painful.
STEVE ZAHN (LEFT), PLAYING A WWOZ DJ, AND KERMIT RUFFINS (CENTER), PLAYING HIMSELF, SMOKE A JOINT OUTSIDE VAUGHAN'S ON A THURSDAY NIGHT.
Episode one establishes the major characters, while episode two feels more like the writers and actors are getting down to the first chapter of what looks to be a long story. Spoiler-free roundup: Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce of The Wire) is a trombone player with a complicated life in which the storm is just one more complication; Khandi Alexander is his ex-wife, who owns a Treme bar where musicians hang out. Goodman's wife (played by Melissa Leo) is a civil-rights attorney and perpetual pain in the ass for the NOPD, and Clarke Peters is a Mardi Gras Indian chief with the will to rebuild his world if not the whole city brick by brick. Those are the major characters so far, along with a supporting cast of a couple dozen, and they're all outstanding, especially Alexander, who is able to do more with one look than most actors can do with a soliloquy. She's magnificent.
And then there are the local cameos (or are they major characters to be?): Spud McConnell as a WWOZ deejay (yes, really), local theater legend Carol Sutton as a maid to an Uptown family, and stage director Carl Walker as a gardening queen, out tending his yard with his much younger partner, glowering at a neighbor. Phyllis Montana LeBlanc (from Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke) is effortlessly funny as the girlfriend of one of the main characters, and then there are musicians by the dozens, mostly playing themselves: Uncle Lionel Batiste, Deacon John, Trombone Shorty, Coco Robicheaux, Elvis Costello, Allen Touissant, Glen Andrews, the late Bunchy Johnson and many, many more.
Treme is so damn good that its few false moments stand out in bas-relief a scene where a large, live jazz band is playing at a Bourbon Street clip-strip joint seems dropped in from a lesser show. But that's small stuff. Not so small, unfortunately, is the final main character, a WWOZ dj named Davis (and based, partially, on Davis Rogan), who seems to be designed to be endearing and annoying in equal measure but only succeeds at the latter, a hipster-stoner who says awful lines like This is some deep New Orleans shit! You cant plan that kind of magic! As played by Steve Zahn, Davis just doesn't work in this story, from his first appearance on screen (nude) to the way he approaches Elvis Costello at Vaughan's on a Thursday night -- a stupid, stammering, starstruck scene straight outta sitcomville. (A real New Orleanian would either ignore the guy or walk past with a casual 'Hey, Elvis.') You find me charming, Davis tells his girlfriend at one point, to which she replies, Not so much. Us either.
But one weak character in a cast as strong as this, with writing as powerful as this Treme is still lightyears beyond almost any depiction of New Orleans put on film, a New Orleans with real accents (and a real lack of accents), a town with brief glimpses of the Quarter and long shots of the Seventh Ward and Central City, a show about jazz that takes place in the real Spotted Cat, Old Point Bar, Vaughans and Bullets. This isn't watered-down or dumbed-down for outside audiences (references fly past by the minute, unexplained), and yet this isn't like Simon's other great series The Wire, either; The Wire was a sprawling drama about the decay in America's urban institutions, and while Katrina and the federal cock-up is a constant counterpoint here, Treme is at heart an episodic drama about the people of New Orleans, with plenty of smiles, a few outright laughs, and a cornucopia of spectacular music used as skillfully as any piece of dialogue. Based on its first two episodes, Treme is a hell of a show and it's all about us.
You've got a week. If you don't have HBO, get you a friend with some.
Treme premieres Sun. April 11.