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There's Pride in the Quarter: HBO's Treme

Khandi Alexander dispenses drinks and the truth about dating musicians in Treme.

By Joe MacLeod | Posted 4/9/2010

"Oh, wow, Baltimore, yeah, I saw The Wire, great show, yeah, Baltimore." People in Baltimore tend to roll their eyes when they hear this, no matter what they thought about the show.

The last thing you would want to watch on TV, for entertainment, might be a drama about what happened (and is happening) after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, especially after Spike Lee's excellent HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke, but we are three episodes in on David Simon and Eric Overmyer's Treme, a drama (also for HBO) about what happened (and is happening) after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, revolving around a particular not-touristy neighborhood, Treme, and hey, it's looking to be every bit as good as The Wire from Simon and company, if not as murder-y, not counting Katrina's off-camera body count.

The title credits feature images of water and mold damage that are graphic, beautiful, terrible records of destruction, accompanied by jubilant theme music that will get stuck in your head. Treme is filled with music you might not know or care about, but it will get at you because it's a character in the story, in ways that movies like The Cotton Club and Kansas City attempted, but not as successfully as here. In Treme, the music and musicmakers of New Orleans steer the story right from the beginning, which for the purposes of the premiere episode means three months after Katrina, and a parade sequence through the Treme neighborhood's bleak, flood-ravaged landscape, which along with trashed refrigerators and cars, is occupied by survivors and returning evacuees, jumping up and taking back their lives in what we learn is the first "second line" procession since the storm. And from there we are introduced to the cast, many of them familiar faces from other Simon enterprises such as Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, and The Wire, along with crew and writers, notably George Pelecanos and the late David Mills.

Along with the sort of semi-patented Simon realness-casting of local non-actors, Treme sports a gang of real musician non-actors who do OK as long as they don't have a whole lot to say, but the strength of the show is the de facto stable of Simon players. Wendell Pierce brings more than a little of his Bunk Moreland from The Wire to the character Antoine Batiste, a pretty good trombone player who can't get his money right thanks to a dearth of gigs and an abundance of dependents, or maybe simply because he's a musician, according to his ferocious ex-wife Ladonna, played arrestingly by Khandi Alexander (from The Corner and more recently CSI Miami). Melissa Leo (from Homicide) is a wonderful do-gooder lawyer doing good; John Goodman is her college professor husband and semi-klunky device for telegraphing Katrina knowledge about natural versus man-made disaster issues, Army Corps of Engineers, etc., but somebody's gotta do it, and Goodman muscles the part into submission. Also spitting useful background info on gentrification and music heritage is Steve Zahn, as a pothead radio DJ music snob, and Clarke Peters (the tightly-wound Lester Freamon from The Wire) is Albert Lambreaux, a New Orleans Indian chief (one of those guys in the wildly elaborate handmade costumes you see in the big parades) back in New Orleans to put the pieces back together with a lot of life-pieces that are hard to find: a home, friends, purpose, and in the first episode he gets the first solid Big Moment in Treme when you know you're watching something special, something important, about something that almost got wiped out for good.

It's going to take a concerted effort to avoid blabbering "Oh, wow, New Orleans, yeah, I saw Treme, great show, Treme, New Orleans."

Treme premieres April 11 on HBO.

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