When TV Creator, David Simon, chose to set his new HBO series in post-Katrina New Orleans, critics wondered if he was going to bring the same Dickensian scope he brilliantly illuminated in The Wire. The short answer is no.
The Wire showed how institutions become dysfunctional by following Baltimore’s low-level drug dealers, city cops as well as district attorneys, sleazy lawyers, beleaguered educators and county officials who seem more concerned rewarding constituents than solving the city’s mounting problems. Simon’s Treme (a neighborhood in New Orleans) stays on the ground level by following people who are trying their best to put their lives and town back together.
There is a bar owner who needs a new roof and a Mardi Gras Indian Chief trying to get his tribe back. There is a restaurant owner wondering if she can hold on until the S.B.A. loan comes through and an unemployed D.J. wondering where he will find his next paycheck. There is a civil rights lawyer who tirelessly searches for a prisoner lost in the shuffle and a Tulane English professor who turns his frustrations into profane rants on You Tube.
What Treme shares with The Wire is an authentic feel for a city. But where Lester Freeman of The Wire once said, “All the pieces matter,” Treme is not concerned with solving the puzzle. Why set a police drama in New Orleans with such great music on every corner? The characters and their travails may provide a bridge from episode to episode. But make no mistake, the musicians are what make this show.
A typical episode runs 60 minutes. If Treme was on NBC, you would be guaranteed 20 minutes of commercials. Since it is on HBO, commercials are turned into music. R&B, Dixieland, funk, jazz, second line, funeral marches, street musicians, Cajun, Zydeco, when the musicians play a song, they play the whole song. No twenty seconds and cut to commercial. This is the Big Easy and the joyful spirit of New Orleans is fully highlighted.
My favorite character is an underemployed trombonist, Antoine Batiste, played by New Orleans native, Wendell Pierce. The way he drifts through the town and interacts with actual musicians is the best part of the show.
There he is playing with trumpeter, Kermit Ruffins, in a smoky low-lit bar.
There he is playing at a strip club while catching the act.
There he is playing in a big band for a wedding party, trying to stay awake while they plow through Ellington’s “Take the A Train” or as he whispers to a fellow trombonist, “Take the Z Train.”
There he is half-inebriated singing with a pair of street musicians.
There he is on the phone trying to get a touring gig with Dr. John.
There he is in baggage claim at Louis Armstrong Airport, playing for visitors from Tulsa and Cincinnati.
There he is doing a funeral march.
There he is working the Second Line.
After he takes some time off to visit his kids in Baton Rouge, Batiste climbs into a bus headed back to his hometown.
A little old lady sitting next to him asks if his trip to New Orleans is for business or pleasure.
Batiste leans back and smiles, “Pleasure, always for pleasure.”