Sentimentality is the enemy of great art, but it’s the balm we liberally apply to cover our historical crimes. That’s the underlying conflict that may doom Treme, the new HBO series set in post-Katrina New Orleans and produced by key members of the formidable team behind The Wire. There is of course much to be livid about, and much to mourn, in the City That Care Forgot. Who can bear the double entendre of that nickname now that we know the full extent of the Army Corp of Engineers’ negligence, local political corruption, and FEMA malfeasance?
But judging by the first two episodes, writers David Simon, David Mills (RIP), and Eric Overmyer don’t trust our innate sense of justice or (perhaps fairly) our grasp of recent history: They’re in a hurry to remind us that the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of the hurricane was not a natural disaster — that thankless task is handed to John Goodman’s crusading university professor, in a scenery-chewing clip meant to also remind us that mainstream media are opportunistic goats rutting in the fields of pathos — that New Orleans is an incomparably rich and unique musical culture, that government officials are two-faced idiots whose policies exiled the black middle-class, that atrocities were committed by law enforcement in the post-flooding madness, that tens of thousands of New Orleanians are yearning to come home, that voodoo is a for-real religion. Etc. I’m not sure what’s left for Episode Three.
The Wire, a five-season tour-de-force about the corruption of the American dream, never apologized for the sorry state of affairs in our inner cities, and when it occasionally lectured, the sermons were delivered by the likes of Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty, whose own moral shortcomings in effect acknowledged that complicity is not always premeditated or consciously evil. The acting was uniformly excellent, even the bit parts, but so was the writing, which allowed a drug kingpin like Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) such a rich inner life and broad story arc that it was impossible not to mourn his inevitable and well-deserved end. There were no easy or faceless villains in The Wire, and that perhaps stands as its single greatest achievement.
The success of The Wire creates a second problem for the show that follows in its drama-vérité footsteps. In the opening scene, Katrina survivors assemble, rag-tag, for their first second-line parade since the flood against a backdrop of fatigue-clad troops. It’s chaotic, raucous, tense — and here comes Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), the cynical and ambivalent homicide detective. No, wait. It’s trombonist and charming womanizer Antoine Batiste. Shortly thereafter we meet Steve Zahn’s (so far mostly irritating hipster dude) character, who’s shagging Deadwood’s Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), and soon enough Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is back, a Mardi Gras Chief seeking his tribe. After the soldiers, the familiar faces form a sort of second occupation — HBO has arrived. (And Elvis Costello, one among many prominent musical guest appearances planned for the series. WTF: Levee Aid?)
Damn it if Pierce and Peters (and by the second episode Goodman) aren’t so sublime, though, that they’re soon creating full, complicated individuals out of the central-casting characters they were handed. Khandi Alexander as bar owner (and Antoine ex) Ladonna Batiste-Williams is shaping up to be one of the most compelling female characters on primetime, and as with its Baltimore predecessor, Treme has cast many locals; you’ll spot Batiste’s plenty disillusioned baby mama (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who appeared in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke) as a standout right away.
Simon and his team have thrown in plenty of live music, too, and a backdrop cast of mildly humorous do-gooder and tourist caricatures, but that fun won’t distract anyone outside New Orleans long if Treme’s writers don’t have the balls to let the characters and story arcs develop and fall where they may. •
*Web Editor's Note: This story originally appeared online without the first paragraph. It has since been corrected and now presented in its entirety.