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Treme -- TV Review

"Treme"

The Bottom Line

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On one hand, David Simon is in the catbird seat. It's hard to think of any TV series more anticipated than his follow-up to the acclaimed, if woefully underappreciated, "The Wire," a smart, richly layered portrait of Baltimore and its (apparently) insoluble drug woes and class warfare.

On the other hand, too much anticipation and attention can suffocate a newborn show. For good or ill, HBO's "Treme" (pronounced "treh-may," after the New Orleans neighborhood in which it largely resides) is cut from a similar cloth as "The Wire," with intertwining stories flavored by the patter and patois of the streets, featuring characters whose skin color and personalities come in every known shade. It's a post-Katrina N'awlins, though -- viewers are dropped into the city three months after the 2005 hurricane -- and residents are only just starting to resurface and re-evaluate. But they're emerging to the heartbeat of the city: Music suffuses nearly every scene, from a glorious opening-scene marching band to buskers sneering at tourists to passionate (if shiftless) musicians like Wendell Pierce's charming trombonist Antoine Batiste.

Pierce isn't the only usual suspect in Simon's suitcase: He has brought along the sharp, mighty Khandi Alexander as a bar owner on a Kafkaesque search for her brother with lawyer Melissa Leo, and the worldly wise Clarke Peters as a neighborhood leader, who sums up the disaster with one line, "People do a lot of dumb shit because it's easier." Newer to Simon's regular playlist of actors are Steve Zahn as an angry young slacker and John Goodman as a belligerent professor; all provide quality, hearty steak dinners of performances.

But the main character of this tale is really New Orleans, and as the series progresses, it emerges as a magical homing beacon to its natives, while Simon et al. shape a patina of survival, regrowth and rebirth. It's all done so masterfully that by the third installment, "Treme" has the old-shoe feeling of a series that has been on for years, not weeks.

Still, those first three episodes do move slowly, and if there's a sour note to be sounded it's that it takes awhile for the series to find its centerpoint. The well-rounded, well-written, charming characters are united behind a climactic incident that has since passed, and with an absence of shared conflict, they're left as a collection of loose threads, short stories of color and light -- but not so much focus.

Fortunately, "Treme" is almost guaranteed to grow richer with time. For now, it might echo a bit strongly of "Wire," and that's fine; both series are about fighting entrenched systems and all forms of bureaucracy, and both have a darkly comic sense of humor. But "Treme" is about building up, not tearing down, and for those who stick around, the results should be worth it. In Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer's hands, New Orleans isn't a wreck -- it's a place both American and otherworldly, complex and Big Easy and enthusiastically, eternally alive.

Airdate: 10-11:20 p.m. Sunday, April 11 (HBO)
Production: Fee Nah Nay for HBO
Cast: Wendell Pierce, Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters, Rob Brown, Steve Zahn, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Michiel Huisman, Lucia Micarelli
Executive producers: David Simon, Nina K. Noble, Eric Overmyer, Carolyn Strauss. Creators: David Simon, Eric Overmyer
Writers: David Simon, Eric Overmyer, David Mills, George Pelecanos, Lolis Elie, Tom Piazza
Co-executive producer: David Mills
Consulting producer: Karen Thorson
Producer: Anthony Hemingway
Directors: Agnieszka Holland, Jim McKay, Ernest Dickerson, Anthony Hemingway, Christine Moore, Brad Anderson, Simon Cellan Jones, Dan Attias
Director of photography: Ivan Strasburg
Production designer: Chester Kaczenski
Costume designer: Alonzo Wilson
Casting: Alexa Fogel