By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; C01
There's usually one person at any party who proudly claims to never, ever watch television.
"Except," this person will add, "for this one show, you may have heard of it, called 'The Wire'?"
Such is the piety around which seriously good TV arranges itself and even becomes full of itself: There is (was) "The Wire," the Baltimore epic of our era from creator and executive producer David Simon, and then there is everything else. That is how backlashes are born, too -- if everybody loves something too much, then there has to be a fault to find, or a hubris sets in.
These are the metaphorical waters into which Simon and his trusted band of co-creators and writers must now wade with "Treme," an engrossing, storm-torn and lovelorn New Orleans drama that debuts Sunday night on HBO. Already the levees overflow with thousands of words of critical analysis, thoughts, hopes and nitpicks; the anticipatory demands here can be distracting, especially if all you want out of "Treme" is a good TV show.
So is it good? Yes, it's quite good. Sunday's episode is nearly flawless and a textbook example of how to launch an ensemble saga that may eventually embroider itself into a haunting tapestry.
Will it be as good as "The Wire"? Three episodes in, I'm willing to say "Treme" (the title is two syllables; it rhymes with away) has the potential to be better than "The Wire." It's suffused with characters and an amazingly crafted musical and ethereal texture that is as lovely and depressing as New Orleans itself. The pain and joy it portrays are as beautiful as the faded, peeling paint and floodline watermarks on which the camera tenderly lingers.
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It is going to be complicated, too. In its opening scene, a central character, trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), joins the brass band in the hard-hit neighborhood of Treme as they take to the streets for their first march since the 2005 floods that came after Hurricane Katrina.
Behind the band forms the random, jubilant, iconic "second line" of city tradition -- including Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary, a jazz freak who typifies the sort of white New Orleanian who so prizes authenticity (in music, in people, in pretending to be poorer than he is) that he shuns the lacquer of tourist "New Orleans." Lackadaisical reverie has become his central ethic.
Davis is intermittently smitten with Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a restaurateur struggling to restore her business after the storm. Antoine is divorced from LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander, in the show's early standout performance), who is keeping her family's dive bar open amid the reconstruction and searching for her brother, who vanished during the storm while in the custody of the Orleans Parish prison. Helping LaDonna in her search is a pro-bono lawyer, Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, another standout); Toni relentlessly engages the entangled and corrupt messes of New Orleans law enforcement and warpy jurisprudence, insisting that human beings aren't allowed to just disappear, even in this town, even after Katrina.
Toni is married to Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a Tulane professor. His character was added to the array late in the show's assembly and his dialogue is saddled with distilling "Treme's" social commentary.
When a British journalist interviewing Creighton asks if New Orleans is worth rebuilding -- since its destruction and sinking is considered by many to be Mother Nature's fait accompli -- the belligerent Creighton assaults him, tries to hurl his TV camera into the Mississippi River and lets loose with the fiery counterargument that is "Treme's" (and New Orleans's) broadest concern: The floods were a man-made disaster, triggered by a hurricane but caused by years of government neglect and an inept federal response.
While essential to any story of life in New Orleans, such moments are nevertheless "Treme's" burden to bear. No matter how hard the writers seemed to have worked to avoid it, much of Goodman's dialogue in the early episodes has the flavoring of op-ed screeds, and it sometimes seeps into other characters' scenes. (On the other hand, how can it not?)
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Remarkably, it turns out that post-Katrina rage is not "Treme's" sole note or even its primary mission.
Though the storm overtly occupies every character and layer of "Treme" ("How's your house?" is the common refrain), Simon and company immediately busy themselves with the far more nuanced task of dispelling and revising the cliches of "New Orleans" and illuminating the ways in which they complement and devalue the actual New Orleans.
"New Orleans" is the Big Easy that the tourists go to so they can drink themselves into a stupor on Bourbon Street and connect themselves to a prefab sense of the city's character, which is built on a series of stereotypes -- most of which are self-perpetuated.
At the same time, the real New Orleans and Katrina belong on that blog "Stuff White People Like" because both continually attract a kind of seeker, from Brad Pitt's green rebuilding effort to writer Dave Eggers's "Zeitoun," and on down -- well-meaning people who want to bring their special understanding for the city's tastes, sounds and people.
It's fascinating to watch "Treme" skirt both the drunk's indifference and the intellectual's arrogance. What results in the first three episodes is a much fuller celebration of place and soul; everything you're initially going to remember about the series is the music, but do stick around for the stories. I say all this as someone who lived in New Orleans for four years, in college, and came away with only an infinitesimal (and youthful) understanding of its complexities. Like most visitors, I let the bon temps rouler right off into meaninglessness. All I ever knew for sure about New Orleans was that it was doomed.
But exploiting "New Orleans" is what saves the actual New Orleans from extinction. The price of that is high, and each of "Treme's" characters struggles with it in some way:
Times are so bad Antoine has to play his horn in a Bourbon Street strip club; another character, Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), holds a revered title as chief of a Ninth Ward Mardi Gras "Indian" tribe, yet endures the indignity of bused-in "Katrina tour" passengers snapping his photo. Davis is disgusted by the men who've moved next door to him in Treme, not because they're white like him or because they are gay, but because they seem to be rich, and that spells gentrification, and that chisels away at authenticity. LaDonna concludes that her brother-in-law won't help her look for her missing brother because, although he's a judge, he's "Seventh Ward, Creole" and regards himself above her Ninth Ward (read: too black) background.
Telling the real story of New Orleans (and "New Orleans") means opening a series of doors that lead to the city's racist nature and its other dividing lines. It will, at this rate, undo innumerable mediocre New Orleans-based movies and TV shows that only served gumbo and bad accents with dime-store voodoo mysteries. "Treme" is not going to make the people of New Orleans 100 percent happy -- and, as in "The Wire," the crime promises to be brutal and unforgivingly portrayed.
But soon, people at parties will start saying that "Treme" is the only television show they ever watch.
Treme, (80 minutes) premieres at 10 p.m., Sunday on HBO.