HBO's 'Treme' is superb 


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David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill, Homicide) makes great TV. But man, he makes you work. His narratives are complex tapestries, and he devotes almost no time to simple exposition. You want to understand the story? Better pay attention.

So don't be surprised if you watch the first episode of Treme and don't learn most of the characters' names, who they are or how they relate to each other.

Just hang on. By episode two, most everything begins to make sense, and you find yourself inside a vibrant city – New Orleans – populated by an angry, confused citizenry trying to find hope where little exists. It's superb.

The show (the title is pronounced treh-MAY) is named for a New Orleans neighborhood, and it takes place three months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city. Many residents are living without running water and power, some have loved ones who are missing, others can't find work and a number have fled the city.

But those who remain share music, love of Creole/Cajun food and an abiding passion for their New Orleans, and they don't want it to lose its soul or identity.

You can understand why. In these United States, where every community has become just like the next one, New Orleans is one of a kind. There may not be another city where you wouldn't think twice about seeing a man walking down the street carrying a trombone (no case) or catching an impromptu parade featuring musicians playing the most glorious horn-centered tunes. And the city's funerals, of course, are legendary.

With this as a backdrop, you have characters like Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a deejay/musician who can't hold a job and has no use for the commercial, Bourbon Street aspects of New Orleans. And the Bernettes – he (John Goodman), a professor who will tell anyone who'll listen that the flooding occurred because the government failed to secure the levees; she (Melissa Leo), a lawyer who tries to help the poor find justice. And Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a musician who can no longer depend on getting steady gigs.

We meet a good 10 or so central characters in the first episode and a few more in the second, each with a story of trying to maintain or regain a sense of normalcy and all being frustrated in one way or another.

The message is that they're struggling, and the rest of the world doesn't seem to understand – even do-gooders who show up to rebuild the city.

If their stories don't get you, the music surely will. There's so much joy in every tune here, from the half big-band, half-old soul version of Bobby and Shirley Womack's "It's All Over Now" to the studio sessions with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

As Albert Lambreaux (played by Clarke Peters) observes: "Everybody loves New Orleans music. New Orleans people?" David Simon doesn't set out to make his characters lovable or even pitiable. He simply wants them to be seen.

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