Long Live Treme

Last night was the premiere of Treme, the new show from The Wire's David Simon set in post-Katrina New Orleans. With all the artsy, smarty expectations placed on the project, how'd it fare? Well, pretty darn well.

I'll admit I was a bit nervous about Treme. I wasn't quite sure if Simon and company's brand of super-specific, nearly expositionless storytelling could avoid being a bit slow without the help of a thrilling cops and drugs and gangsters and guns plotline. I thought there might be something a little too humble and localized about a comparatively action-free story, even though yes, of course, we are dealing with basic struggles to survive in a storm- and poverty-ravaged city. I was scared of the limits of my own patience and intellect, basically. "If there's no shooting, or at least the threat of shooting, will I still want to put in the time and thought?"

Well, I'm happy to say that I was completely wrong to worry. In a movie-length first episode, we were treated to a compelling and satisfying montage of thoroughly authentic characters in various states of (dis)repair. The Wire's great Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters blessedly return to the airwaves as, respectively, a weary and barely-scraping-by trombonist and a determined Mardi Gras Indian chief trying to rebuild whatever he can upon returning to his beloved city. They do their usual quietly confident work, and are once again ably supported by the rest of the cast, which is stacked with some slightly brighter names than those who inhabited the corners of Baltimore.

The reliable Melissa Leo and John Goodman are a married couple with a dry house and (it would seem) some money in the bank, who actively crusade for the downtrodden city and its people, often frustrated by the results. The marvelous Kim Dickens plays a highly competent restaurant chef for whom business is booming, but whose supplies and staff are dwindling. Khandi Alexander, who featured prominently on Simon's pre-Wire look at Baltimore The Corner, does sturdy work as a bar owner searching for her brother, who she fears was killed during the storm. (She is also the ex-wife of Pierce's character, and the two of them had several electrically charged scenes last night.) The only character I didn't quite cotton to last night was Steve Zahn's short-tempered, dumpy musician/DJ. He was playing that Zahn character — the smart but aimless slacker, the dope who you kind of know is always right, but is still a dope — and it just felt so out of place on a show otherwise populated with folks who it seems you'd actually be likely to meet if you wandered off of Bourbon Street and, daresay, interacted with the locals. I hope they start to tone him down or something, because I found many of his scenes irksome and don't want anything so glaring dragging down and otherwise fine show.

Music and the people who make it play a crucial part in the series and, I'll admit, I'm not a Music Guy. I was a little scared that I'd be treated to boring jazz interludes that deadened the already moseying pace. But what Simon and his creative team have done is make the music scenes not just about music appreciation. The show's music is an expression of joy, obviously, but it's also thoughtful and freighted with meaning — these people take their fun pretty seriously. By using music as a conduit into the texture of these communities, Treme does a wonderful job of showing us, in terrific detail, just how people in pockets of this fascinating city operate, how they communicate with one another, how they pass the time. Music isn't in their blood, it is their blood. It is everywhere, it is necessary. It is, cornily enough, the essence of life — a source of pride, of lament, of power (in often powerless neighborhoods). It's a heady theme when you take a step back, but up close the music just feels organic and easy, perfectly instep with Simon's snappy, exact, rhythmic dialogue.

So basically I liked it, a lot. I was never bored, I never got anxious about scratching my head and wondering who people were, how the various strands tied together. The Wire was good practice for that, I suppose. I remembered the first few dizzying episodes of every season — the scramble to get your bearings and figure out who and what everything is — and told myself that on Treme, like on The Wire, all will become clear if I only pay attention. And with acting and writing this good, I'm happy to do so, closely.

Last night's episode began with a joyful parade and ended with a funeral procession. I almost wish they were flipped. While the horror of the storm looms large and influential on the show, it really seems to be talking about rebirth (and, of course, Rebirth), about life poking back up through the cracks. This is a much more optimistic show than The Wire, it seems. Ending on a funeral seemed a bit downbeat, even though it was your typical New Orleans musical procession. But I suppose Simon was just reminding us that a lot about New Orleans did die during that flood, and we shouldn't forget what grim and dire times those were. Not forget, but also keep marching, I guess. Because that's just what people do.

So what'd you think? Were you satisfied? Let down? Dancing in the streets?