By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn April 21, 2010 at 6:30AM
I have seen the first three episodes of HBO's "Treme" and cannot wait to watch more.
The brilliance of this latest offering from "The Wire" creators Eric Overmeyer and David Simon comes from the manner in which it mimics real life with a kaleidoscope of moods: Tragedy, humor and fear define the climate of its immediate post-Katrina New Orleans setting. Like "The Wire," the show has an operatic style that emerges from its wide-ranging ensemble cast, a diverse and tenuously-related bunch of musicians, lawyers, tourists, activists and others, all of whom retain their allegiance to the region in the wake of its sudden deterioration. The story begins in media res, with less background explained than merely implied, allowing viewers to steadily become invested in the multifaceted dramas pervading a variety of situations. Although it works as a full-fledged companion piece to Spike Lee's epically tragic documentary "When the Levees Broke," it feels less downbeat than sharply observational.
The effect of the show is cumulative, but each episode stands on its own. From their first scenes, it's clear that bumbling music junkie Davis (Steve Zahn, perfectly cast, maybe born for this role) and solemn trombone player Antoine (Wendell Pierce) provide "Treme" with its core likable characters. (John Goodman, as a dyspeptic academic, manages to steal the spotlight a few times.) Davis's endless harping on the ills of gentrification provide a constant source of comic relief, while Antoine's ailing career and domestic troubles bring the omnipresent sense of loss to a personal level of grief. Many scenes are haunted by the impact of Katrina, but not defined by it. With its methodical isolation of a single moment in recent history, "Treme" extrapolates universal suffering that makes the show into a timeless expression of longing and sadness.
The beauty of well-honed television in the golden age of HBO is that it can interest mass audiences in long-form narrative structures in ways that cinema usually cannot. The first episode begins with a tune-up session and ends with a mesmerizing funeral march, giving us the full equation of New Orleans cultural capacity for ironic celebration in the face of despair. The following episodes contain separate but equally provocative theses, ranging from the Orientalist quality of post-Katrina tourism to the two-sided coin of the city's heightened military presence. Through it all, the creators' ability to tap into the naturalistic rhythms of their setting move along as smoothly as the toe-tapping jazz on the soundtrack.
Here's a sample from the catchy opening: