Earlier tonight, David Simon‘s newest stunner of an HBO series TREME debuted and hit dark and glorious notes of hope for the struggling, sublime soul of New Orleans. Packed wall to wall with richly drawn characters and involving drama as deeply layered as the mud lines still visible on the homes of hurricane victims, the music and humanity rise above the ruins and uplift the soul.
Co-creators Simon and Eric Overmeyer (previously behind HBO’s gripping drama THE WIRE) starts slowly but with impact, immersing the opening credits in a visual montage of mud-caked, mildewed walls of emptied homes. No skin colors, no cultural demarcations, these are lives, memories, family histories washed away and those who held them dear displaced by the floods. American lives and memories, something to which all viewers can relate regardless of ethnicity or geography.
It is from these muddied wastes and wreckage that New Orleans will arise and thrive once again, but not quite yet.
The story opens in 2005, only three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and aid, basic necessities and reclamation of this disaster area are slow in coming to help millions. Narrowing the series’ focus on the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood, a New Orleans city subdistrict rich with African-American and Creole history, culture and music, a varied but manageable cast of characters continues picking up and cleaning off their fragmented lives. Frustration and disappointment abound, but hope and diligence burn strongly in the hearts of these survivors.
Multiple story lines interweave across this neighborhood: a bar owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams (fierce and vulnerable Khandi Alexander) maintains consistency of locale and fellowship in the Treme despite her life’s turmoil as she searches for her missing brother; her ex-husband and trombone virtuoso Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) lives hand-to-mouth playing nightclub gigs and funeral parades while supporting his new family; restaurant chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) continues feeding hungry neighbors seeking refuge in their city’s soulful cuisine; her flaky sometimes-boyfriend and local radio deejay Davis McAlary (superbly cast Steve Zahn) fights to preserve the musical heritage of New Orleans despite his own comical shallowness; outspoken local advocate Creighton Bernette (John Goodman at full power) and his civil attorney wife Toni (HOMICIDE’s Melissa Leo) wage their own wars against the government corruption, failures and bureaucratic incompetence which turned a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe; and Albert Lambreaux (riveting Clarke Peters) works tirelessly and alone to sweep away the ruins left behind by the storm and revive local traditions as a Mardi Gras Indian chief figurehead of the New Orleans annual celebration.
That may read like a lot of dramatic threads to track, but Simon and Overmeyer’s script flows effortlessly, gently but forcefully pulling you into the current of these people’s difficult yet optimistic lives. While viewers can’t taste or smell the sumptuous food being served throughout — from gourmet dishes at Janette’s restaurant to the simple, hearty red beans and rice LaDonna favors her ex with — the amazing musical soundtrack dives straight from the ears to the soul.
Currently there is no word on an official soundtrack for TREME yet, but hope for one not far behind the series’ debut and if it features even some of the music from this premiere installment, be sure to grab it upon release. Featured music ranges from classic favorites such as Louis Prima to performance work by Kermit Ruffins (as himself on stage), with appearances by Elvis Costello tonight and Dr. John in the near future. If you’re already a fan of the multivariate musical stylings associated with New Orleans, you’ll revel in its glory during the show; and if you’re new to these rich cultural sounds, prepare to get hooked on this uniquely American and internationally-influenced vibe. [UPDATE: HBO’s official site for the series features weekly recaps of the music in each episode, most of which is available for purchase.]
If you were unfortunate enough to miss Sunday’s premiere of TREME, be sure to catch it this week in an HBO rerun or on-demand screening before part two airs next week. You’d expect great, compelling adult drama from HBO and co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, and you’ll get it at the new height of their art. Yet TREME raises the bar another notch higher by telling this true-to-life American story, a historic moment in our nation that we continue living today, and this series delivers you right to its social and cultural epicenter. The proud city of New Orleans and its people still struggle today, but all eyes look upward in hope of progress, justice and renewed prosperity. As the Mardi Gras Indian chief proclaims loudly in the night: won’t bow, don’t know how. TREME bottles that spirit most successfully and you’ll savor it for the next ten weeks and beyond.