Tuned In: HBO's 'Treme' takes viewers to New Orleans

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HBO's "Treme" is not a TV show you watch; it's a program you submerge yourself in.

Premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday, this series from the executive producers of "The Wire" takes viewers to New Orleans three months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It's a languidly paced series -- too slow in Sunday's 82-minute premiere but less pokey in subsequent episodes -- that invites American viewers to relax into the particular culture of The Crescent City and absorb the boisterous jazz music that wafts through each episode.

As in "The Wire," executive producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer are not preoccupied with making sure viewers understand everything they see on screen. Their goal is to paint a realistic portrait on a broad canvas -- but they don't provide a study guide. There will be moments of confusion for viewers and anyone who plans to watch will just have to accept that as the price of admission.

Even so, "Treme" is either a less complicated show than "The Wire" or "The Wire" trained me how to better watch and comprehend complex, character-driven television. Either way, the less dark, less gritty, still raw "Treme" offers more ebullient entertainment without sacrificing the realistic situations or character development familiar to fans of "The Wire."

The series begins in the fall of 2005 and follows about a dozen characters, some of whom are connected to one another. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, "The Wire"), a smooth-talking trombonist with a devil's glint in his eye, tries to earn money playing music, including at funeral parades for neighbors.

His ex-wife, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander, "The Corner"), operates a bar and splits her time between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where her husband and children are living. She's also trying to find her missing-since-the-storm brother, Daymo, with the help of civil rights attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, "Homicide: Life on the Street").

The politics surrounding Katrina pulses through "Treme." In the premiere they're most overt in scenes with Toni's husband, college English professor Creighton (John Goodman), who inveighs against the government for its lack of preparedness before the storm.

Doofus disc jockey Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is sleeping with devoted chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, "Deadwood"). Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters, "The Wire") attempts to reassemble his tribe, much to the consternation of his overprotective daughter. Future episodes introduce street musicians Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michael Huisman, a Dutch actor whose native accent slips out too often).

There's no strong franchise in "Treme" for the writers to use as a backbone for their stories -- cops and lawyers are represented but not enough to provide a story engine -- and that's probably what contributes to a bit of limpness around the show, which simply asks viewers to settle in, soak up the music and characters and appreciate the ride.

Music makes the most memorable impression in "Treme," from the jaunty, toe-tapping theme song ("Treme Song" by John Boutte from his album "Jambalaya"; available for download at Amazon.com) to the performances that pop up in stories involving Antoine and Davis. The combination of music and some humor, particularly from Mr. Goodman's character, make "Treme" easier to digest than a David Simon series might otherwise be.

In Sunday's premiere, Creighton puts the smackdown on a snooty British TV reporter who sniffs derisively at New Orleans music and food culture. In a future episode, he rails against his university's decision to do away with several engineering degrees while retaining myriad cultural studies programs.

"Let's not learn how to actually do anything," he says. "Let's just sit and contemplate the glory of me in all my complexities. Who am I? I am black, Jewish woman, hear me roar!"

The irony, of course, is that "The Wire" is now being taught in college culture classes similar to the ones Creighton criticizes and "Treme" could be next. But the character also seems to know where his own department stands. When a student wonders if the English program might be cut, Creighton doesn't hesitate: "We're useless. We're safe."

Tackling 'Treme'

Bringing a new TV show to life is never an easy task, but making "Treme" got even more emotionally difficult for the show's creative team last week with the death of one of their own. Writer David Mills, who previously wrote for "The Wire," "Kingpin," "Homicide" and "The Corner," died of an apparent aneurysm while on the "Treme" set.

Not that it was an easy launch before that loss. As with any new program, there's the question of where to begin. For Mr. Simon, the history of post-Katrina New Orleans became their guide.

"It really needs to be a story of something first," he said in January during an HBO press conference at the TV critics press tour in Pasadena, Calif. "After that, you start thinking about what characters ought to be in the piece that help you tell that story. ... This is how the city comes back or doesn't, what comes back on what terms."

Just as "The Wire" told stories of Baltimore, "Treme" will tell tales of New Orleans.

"In a way, 'The Wire' implied what was at stake with the American city," Mr. Simon said. "But 'Treme' is actually an examination of what it is, what living as disparate and different people compacted into an urban area can offer and not offer."

New Orleans offers an abundance of music, which producers believed should play a critical role in "Treme."

"If you look at what our greatest export would be culturally or politically or socially from the American experiment, you'd have to put African-American music probably at the top of the list," Mr. Simon said. "That whole notion of African rhythm and the pentatonic scale meeting European instrumentation and arrangement comes from about 12 square blocks in New Orleans."

Pronounced "treh-may," the series is named after a neighborhood near the French Quarter, Mr. Overmeyer said. "It's one of the neighborhoods called the Faubourg Treme where American music and American culture was born, and we felt it stood for a state of mind and a part of the city that didn't show up usually in [TV shows or movies] about New Orleans. The show is not about that neighborhood, but it's about the musical spirit."

The first season of "Treme" will track the characters from fall 2005 through Mardi Gras. If renewed, subsequent seasons will likely cover the same winter months for a practical reason: "The insurance companies make filming during the hurricane season cost-prohibitive," Mr. Simon said. "So we are always going to be starting up after the hurricane season in November and finishing up before the hurricane season in June."

What's news?

A colleague who was flipping around cable news networks Tuesday night during the early hours of the West Virginia mine disaster said MSNBC and Fox News Channel stuck with their ideological talking head shows (with occasional news updates) in prime time while CNN went with live news coverage. This is not terribly surprising.

MSNBC and FNC are more interested in catering to their partisan audiences, behaving more like niche entertainment channels targeting specific viewers than they are in being actual news networks. Easy as it might be to scold the networks, we also have to recognize why they behave this way: Because it's what viewers have voted with their remotes that they want to watch.

CNN's all-news approach has not been working in the ratings, but the proselytizing to the choir on MSNBC and FNC has helped those networks in the ratings, especially FNC. There's a definite symbiotic relationship between viewers and networks, and we can argue who's more to blame for the current state of affairs -- viewers for making clear their preference or networks for catering to what viewers want -- but either way the result is the same: News takes a beating in favor of partisan hot air.

Channel surfing

The debut of ABC's Pittsburgh-set sitcom "Romantically Challenged" has been pushed back to April 19 from April 12. ... Coming soon to "Saturday Night Live": guest host Tina Fey with musical guest Justin Bieber (Saturday), Ryan Phillippe with Ke$ha (April 17) and Gabourey Sidibe with MGMT (April 24). ... Investigation Discovery's "On the Case With Paula Zahn" begins its second season April 18 at 10 p.m. ... NBC renewed three nonscripted series: "The Marriage Ref," "Who Do You Think You Are?" and the truly horrible "Minute to Win It." ... Fox has canceled "Sons of Tucson," removing it from the schedule effective immediately. ... Comedy Central has renewed "Tosh.0" for a third season. ... In light of the West Virginia mining tragedy, Planet Green will repeat the documentary "Coal Country," about mining's impact on the environment and people, at 6 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.

Tuned In online

In today's online TV Q&A, there are responses to questions about "Southland" and TV Land show start times. Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Glee," the final season of "The Tudors" and a new sitcom starring Betty White. Read online TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's Tuned In podcast includes conversation about "Treme," "24" and "Justified." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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