The word “Treme” rhymes with “cachet” instead of “dream,” but both rhymes would be equally apt. It’s the name of America’s oldest, freest black community, and the setting of David Simon’s and Eric Overmyer’s newest, freest, blackest epic series, Treme (Sundays on HBO at 10 pm, starting Apr. 11). The show, about New Orleans after the flood, emits shimmering heatwaves of prestige, and sustains a sense of place as dreamy as Twin Peaks, only rigorously reality-based.
“Treme” also aptly rhymes with “Sidney Bechet,” who came from the place, as did jazz. No TV show whips up a more addictive gumbo of jazz, funk, and what-have-you – forget Dr. John and Elvis Costello, though they’re fine here, it’s the musicians you don’t know who’ll bowl you over. Once you’ve heard Kermit Ruffins and the sonically tight, visually disheveled Rebirth Brass Band, you’ll want to grab your bone and join the procession. I’d maim to own the Glee soundtrack, but I’d kill for Treme.
Fans of Simon’s Baltimore epic The Wire will thrill to see its famous faces back. Wiretap genius Det. Freamon (Clarke Peters) reappears as Albert, a chief of Mardi Gras “Indian” ceremonial revelers and homeowner stubbornly refusing to abandon his place. Uber-interrogator Det. Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce, a real-life New Orleanian) becomes Rebirth band trombonist Antoine, whose life could use some rebirth. He’s so broke he has to play strip joints that scarcely pay, which pleases none of his kids’ mothers. His ex LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), struggling to keep the family bar afloat after the waters recede, can’t find it in her heart to hate Antoine – he’s even more irresistible than he is irresponsible. Even the cabdrivers he routinely screws out of their fares bear him grudging affection.
LaDonna’s quest is to find her brother, who vanished into the criminal-justice system the night of the flood. If anybody can beat the system for LaDonna, it’s crusading lawyer Toni (Melissa Leo, the sad-eyed cop from the Simon-scripted Homicide). Toni’s Tulane professor husband (John Goodman) fights the system by screaming obscenities at film crews who don’t get why New Orleans should be saved, and hurling their microphones in the river. He’d throw them if he could lift them.
Since you can’t beat the system, Treme denizens invent their own idiosyncratically, defiantly unsystematic systems. Jazzland is all about putting your personal stamp on things. If you know the score, you ignore the printed score and improvise your own. Goateed white rich-turned-poor kid Davis (Steve Zahn), twice as irresponsible as Antoine, declines to play hackneyed jazz standards on his radio station’s pledge week, preferring guests who do wall-spattering voodoo sacrifices and music masters like Louis Prima who worked for the Mafia, because Davis insists the Mafia was the only functional government the town ever had. When he breaks into a record store to steal his own music, he feels entitled to steal another title, because another copy was once stolen from his car, so ìkarmatically,î the new one is really his.
The narrative boils sluggishly like an incredibly dense, energetic roux whose primordial bubbles rise slowly and pop when they feel like it, which could be never. A beautiful feather floats by, but you won’t know why you’re watching it, what it’s part of, until the time is ripe. If you tune into Treme hoping for the kind of quick plot payoffs most TV shows go for, you’ll go crazy waiting. And you’ll be like a dumb tourist who needs directions to Bourbon Street while standing on it, not getting it, oblivious to all but the obvious. What makes Simon great is that he dares to confuse viewers, and make them wait for vivid vignettes and evocative snapshots to sprout deeper meanings, sometimes episodes later. There are no tourists in Simon’s audience. To watch him is to go native.
Most shows (and movies) are terrified of not spelling everything out in mile-high letters. Simon gives you mysterious privileged glimpses, characters and dialog as elliptically overlapping as anything in Altman. Instead of begging for attention every second, a Simon show says, “Stick around, maybe pretty soon you’ll be qualified to get what’s going on here.” Treme is even more radical than the Dickensian-plotted The Wire in this respect. If you watch one episode of Treme and aren’t hooked, don’t give up until at least two more. Your smarter future self will thank you.
The other auteur of Treme, part-time New Orleanean Eric Overmyer, worked on St. Elsewhere, Homicide, and The Wire, but what got him there were his early, weirdly plotted plays, the Victorian pastiche On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning and the music-infused noir satire In a Pig’s Valise. He’s a more linguistically esoteric writer than Tom Stoppard, so acute (and sometimes too cute) that critic John Simon called Overmyer’s gift “precious” in two senses. Some will think Treme is too precious, too focused on ornate poetical lingo, blazingly real characters, and pure moments; cooler heads will see that’s the point of the gift.
Not that there aren’t plots and riveting human drama aplenty in Treme. It’s just that the main plot is essentially akin to that of Overmyer’s In a Pig’s Valise: bad guys have come to steal America’s dreams. The good guys are going to wrest those dreams back, even if they have to fight and play all out, all night. Treme may become a hit, but it’s not interested in hitness the way everything else in Hollywood so slavishly is. Like Treme itself, the show is an oasis of freedom in a sea of slavery. When Davis glimpses Elvis Costello in the audience and tries to get Kermit Ruffins to go kowtow to Elvis to get fame and fortune and a spot on an Elvis world tour, Kermit demurs. Davis demands, “All you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?" Kermit murmurs, “That’ll work.”
Works for me. If it works for you, this is your kind of show.