Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I've got some "Treme" comin' in: "Treme" Review

As I said in my last TV review, shows that aren't The Wire don't fare particularly well in my book. HBO's Treme, however, holds the distinction of being pretty darn close to The Wire.

Treme, you see, is the latest venture from veteran journalist/notorious crank/minor deity David Simon, the writer and creator of, you guessed it, The Wire. I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't hungrily consumed everything with Simon's name on it, but nothing of what I've seen touches the world-ending brilliance of The Wire. Rob disagrees with me, but I found Generation Kill to be better on concept than execution; laudably verité, but it doesn't come close to the emotional wallop of Simon's masterpiece. This new thing, though, might have some legs.

Treme follows the residents of (where else) Treme, a neighborhood in New Orleans. The show begins three months after Hurricane Katrina, as the show's protagonists try to pull the remains of their pre-hurricane lives out of the rubble. As with any David Simon venture, the term "protagonists" doesn't seem quite adequate, though; characters don't drive Simon's shows as they live in them. The universe of Treme, like that of The Wire or even, hell, Star Wars, is rich with life and detail. That much I can already tell.

The pilot opens with the first "second line" (a quintessentially New Orleans parade) after the hurricane. We're introduced to a few of the show's main characters during this sequence, including Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, every bit as good here as he was on The Wire), who I like to think of as the show's spiritual core. He's poor and proud, much like the city itself. His storyline leads us to a local dive bar owned by his pistol of an ex-wife ("Pistol? Am I 90?"), LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander of CSI: Miami fame). The two appear to be on good terms, but LaDonna's understandably pissed at Antoine's deadbeat dad-ness.

Then there's wannabe homeboy Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who gets woken up as the second line passes by his block. Zahn is so good that he makes parts of Saving Silverman watchable, but I'm worried his character here is a bit one-note: does Davis really need to be pissed off at everything? He's pissed at his neighbors (who he torments by blasting Mystikal through a couple of half-stacks), pissed at the radio station where he DJs (for making him play a CD of overplayed N'awlins hits for a pledge drive), and pissed at the local Tower Records (for almost shipping his band's records back to the headquarters in New York because the chain is shutting down). Oh yeah, and Janette (Kim Dickens), the girl he's sleeping with (but not dating), is pissed at him for being a slob and a general dickhead.

There are a lot of pissed people, and understandably so; the hurricane hit so recently that people claim there are still bodies in the buildings. The scenes of erstwhile Mardi Gras Indian Albert Lambreaux (good Lord is it great to have Clarke Peters back) digging out the neighborhood bar to make room for a practice space are among the most familiar and heartbreaking of the show. In an hour-and-a-half full of piss and vinegar, the sad pride lined into Peters' face is perhaps the most affecting part of the show.

Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) is pissed, too, but I could watch John Goodman yell at a banana. Mr. Sobchak, it's good to have you back.

One reviewer remarked that while Treme has atmosphere and personality to spare, there ain't much in the way of plot. That's certainly true of the pilot, and she had the added benefit of having watched the first three episodes. But you know what else moves at a sub-snail's pace? Mad Men.

And that atmosphere and personality is so considerable. Treme is downright gorgeous, which is something I never said about The Wire. Simon's gang (including veteran Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland, who directed the pilot) doesn't go all "Guy Ritchie" on us, though. Treme is no less naturalistic than The Wire, but the scenery is just better to look at. And veteran Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland (who directed the pilot) captures every grimy, pretty bit of the city.

Even detractors must admit that Treme has "treme"-ndous (ugh) potential. I'm happy to go back to the city with these old souls.

Treme airs on Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.