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When The Levee Breaks: Treme Reviewed
Terry Staunton , February 14th, 2011 10:58

Terry Staunton sacrifices a chicken and finds that the gods of voodoo are smiling on HBO's Treme

For a long time, The Wire was the greatest television drama hardly anyone had seen. Tucked away on the FX channel in Britain, its slowburn story of Baltimore drug dealers, cops and newspaper men grew in stature through word of mouth, through superlative-packed magazine articles, and only truly exploded into broader view via DVD box sets and belated re-runs on the BBC last year.

Series creator David Simon’s latest project, Treme, is unlikely to endure a such an obscure birth. When it receives its UK premiere this Friday, it will be before an audience eager to get in on the ground floor of the latest offering in the ever-growing canon of “appointment viewing”, those unmissable shows that make up the well-stitched fabric of essential 21st century TV.

Of course, taking into account the slavish devotion of Wire-heads and the weight of industry expectation, it already has a lot to live up to, but not just because of Simon’s impressive CV. The Sky Atlantic launch hullabaloo revolved almost exclusively around Boardwalk Empire, the combination of Martin Scorsese and sundry creative dynamos from The Sopranos grabbing all the media attention. Treme makes its bow more than a fortnight later, and it will be hard for viewers to resist sizing one up against the other, in a kind of non-terrestrial telly variation of the Blur versus Oasis face-off of old.

It’s a pretty pointless exercise, though, as both programmes are very much their own beasts. Also, while Treme does share several strands of DNA with Simon’s earlier perceived masterpiece, it would be a mistake to view it as The Wire Mk II. The glacial plotting, the visual textures, the dramatic tones, the ruminations on failing American infrastructures, even some of its cast members may be the same, but the new offering could yet reveal itself to be a work of greater depth, and with a wider audience appeal.

Simon and his co-creator Eric Overmyer first hatched a plan for a series about musicians in New Orleans when The Wire itself was just two seasons old, but put it on the backburner while the Baltimore-set crime saga unfolded at is own natural pace for another three years.

During that time, real life intervened in the form of Hurricane Katrina, indelibly altering the blueprint for the new show. Yes, it would still focus on the city’s rich musical community, but specifically on how that community set about rebuilding (culturally and personally, at least) their hometown in the aftermath of a disaster that all but destroyed three-quarters of the city. What emerges is an epic story of strength, song and survival.

Treme (pronounced “Truh-may”, after one of the poorest districts in New Orleans) is a multi-layred character-driven piece, its portrayal of its citizens’ struggles no different to those of, say, Albert Square or Weatherfield, but instead of gor-blimey boozers being burned down by dysfunctional relatives, or runaway trams careering onto cobbled streets below, the obstacles its players have to overcome are rooted in reality.

The post-Katrina clean-up aspects of Treme’s early narrative centre on university lecturer and community activist Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, articulately raging against the shortcomings of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and a US administration seemingly content to let New Orleans die. Naysayers may point to the Goodman character and his lawyer wife (Melissa Leo) searching for poor black convicts “lost” in the system after being evacuated from the city’s jails as liberal white Hollywood soapbox sloganeering, but it still makes for a powerful device in establishing the series’ momentum.

It’s an ensemble drama, majestically weaving together myriad plotlines, but if there is a pivotal character in the early episodes it’s probably trombone player Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, aka The Wire’s Buck Moreland), scouring the neighbourhood for gigs to pay his bills and support his second wife and young child, while still pining for more contact with his first wife and their two sons. First wife Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) still runs the New Orleans bar she inherited from her father, despite having moved to the affluent suburbs of Baton Rouge with her dentist second husband. Inbetween trying to fix up the bar almost flattened by the hurricane, she’s searching for her younger brother, missing since the storm.

Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) runs a restaurant in permanent threat of going under, her cause not helped by an on-off relationship with wastrel DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a jazz enthusiast with a reverse King Midas touch, who invites chaos at every turn – in one great scene he’s fired from his radio job after an old school voodoo musician sacrifices a chicken live on air.

Joining Pierce from The Wire’s top-liners is Clarke Peters, cast here as Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, an old school Mardi Gras Indian whose tribal music and gaudy feathered costumes represent a traditional aspect of New Orleans culture already under threat long before the storms came, striving to keep a heritage alive while clashing with his urbane trumpet-playing son, making a name for himself in the sophisticated jazz clubs of Manhattan.

Music is never far from beating heart of Treme, the drama punctuated by such recorded delights as Lee Dorsey, The Neville Brothers, Ernie K-Doe and Louis Prima, and by some genuinely thrilling live performances in the city’s bars and nightclubs, Simon triumphantly casting musicians like Allen Toussaint, Dr John, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello to play themselves, further blurring the lines between fiction and fact.

For the most part, however, Simon has cast New Orleans natives in as many roles as possible, just like the good people of Baltimore were an integral part of The Wire. Again, it’s an aspect of the programme that will invite parallels, but utlimately there is an significant difference between the two shows. The fatalism and perhaps unavoidable defeatism of The Wire suggested an unflinching obituary to a once great city; Treme sets out its stall, in Season One at least, as a celebration of a city, and the hope that the healing power of glorious music might just play a incisive role in its rebirth.

Treme debuts on Sky Atlantic on 18 February at 10.15pm