TV review: "Treme"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Some fans of "The Wire" have argued that despite rampant critical praise, the show never caught on with a wide audience because the average American viewer doesn't care about the plight of poor inner-city people.

Call it racism, classicism, whatever, but when presented with the show's bleak picture of an irreparably broken system, most would rather look away and plug their fingers in their ears.

(Of course, you could argue that most "Wire" fans didn't care about that stuff as more than riveting entertainment or ripe fodder for pseudo-intellectual debate. I found the show deeply moving, but I didn't respond by, you know, taking action, unless telling other people how great "The Wire" is counts.)

On a similar token, others wondered if the Baltimore-based crime drama's complex web of characters and plotlines was too mentally taxing for folks just looking to kick back. Like a difficult but rewarding novelist, David Simon doesn't spoon-feed you.

Theoretically, "Treme," the latest project from Simon and co-creator Eric Overmeyer, jumps off from a more accessible place. This time Simon tackles one of the previous decade's most universal stories: New Orleans' attempt to resuscitate its culture in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And instead of the city-wide sprawl that characterized "The Wire," the scope is limited to the titular neighborhood.

Plus "Treme" eschews Simon's preference for anonymous actors with roles for recognizable faces like John Goodman, Steve Zahn and Khandi Alexander, each of whom blends seamlessly into the show's dense fabric.

That said, fans of "The Wire" will immediately notice Simon's fingerprints, and not just because "Wire" alums Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters are in the cast. There's just as much frustration here for characters and viewers alike, and anybody who thought "The Wire" was too slow will probably consider "Treme" a slog too.

That's a shame because Simon's new show is as rich a TV experience as you'll find.

It's fraught with characters that feel real - Zahn's neurotic, solipsistic disc jockey; Pierce's hard-bargaining trombone player; Alexander's bar owner on a desperate search for her brother - and a few that really are, such as jazz legend Kermit Ruffins in a recurring role as himself.

The imagery is just as striking. "Treme" sets scenes of waterlogged destruction against the rapturous release of musical expression, from the bustle of Vaughn's jazz club to an intimate practice session by a few remaining Mardi Gras Indians. Just try not to get swept up in the "second line" brass band parade that opens the 80-minute pilot episode or the swaying jazz funeral procession that closes it.

Once again, through intense research and careful craftsmanship, Simon has drawn out the universal beauty and pain of a world most of us know nothing about.

Premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, April 11 on HBO

Grade: A