Because it’s co-created by David Simon, the genius behind the justly extolled crime saga The Wire, the new HBO drama Treme faces a critical test. No, not ratings: I’m talking about the blackboard test. The Wire, which ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, boasted such an ambitious sociological vision, such rich storytelling, and such—yes, I’ll say it—Shakespearean characters that, as a New York Times Magazine cover story recently reported, universities like Duke and UC Berkeley are offering courses on the series. Will Treme, a show about post-Katrina New Orleans dreamed up by Simon and Wire veteran Eric Overmyer, wind up being taught in universities?

It might, if the three Treme episodes released early to reviewers are anything to judge by. Whether the show proves a must-watch—that’s a harder question. Officially launched on April 11, Treme follows a cohort of vividly idiosyncratic characters through a meticulously conceived fretwork of public spheres: the music world; the bar and restaurant business; law enforcement and the justice system; academia; the media; and the realm of African-American Mardi Gras festivities. Want to contemplate the civic DNA of New Orleans—and America in general—while pondering the economic and cultural devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina? Meet the yearning protagonists of Treme. (The title alludes to the Big Easy’s Faubourg Tremé, said to be the birthplace of jazz.)

These personalities include numerous musicians, like the philandering trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) and the irascible guitarist Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who loses his DJ post at a radio station after allowing a guest to sacrifice a rooster in the studio. Also in the spotlight are the scrappy civil-rights lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo); her English-professor husband, Creighton (John Goodman); Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters); and many others.

These characters come equipped with goals and quandaries that reflect Katrina’s impact. Antoine copes with money problems in a city still short on tourists and paying gigs; Toni searches databases, Louisiana jails, and newspaper photo archives for a client not seen since the flood; and so on. Still, as portrayed by the terrific cast, the characters are eccentric and soulful enough to seem more than narrative devices. Moving back to New Orleans, in defiance of his anxious family, to rally his “Indian tribe” (as groups of African-American Mardi Gras celebrants are dubbed), Lambreaux could be the token representative of the carnival tradition; but something about actor Peters’s somber, stoic demeanor—the reverent way he handles a gold-feathered Indian costume—makes the character seem rounded.

The figure of Creighton is likewise thematically loaded: He’s first seen ranting to a TV interviewer about what he sees as the federal government’s culpability in the Katrina flooding. (The Army Corps of Engineers, he argues, constructed shoddy levees.) Epitomizing Treme’s no-man-is-an-island perspective, the moment is a reminder that the story has a political context and that, as they consume and relay news and rumor, the characters are part of the country’s information ecology.

That’s a lot of subtext, but Goodman invests Creighton with such robust crankiness that the character feels like more than a screenwriter’s conceit. Treme’s brilliantly textured sound design also helps: affronted at the interviewer’s belittling of New Orleans, Creighton hurls the man’s microphone into the canal and tries to do the same with the camera. During the tussle you can hear the sounds of grunts, gulls, disturbed water, the men’s feet on the river bank, and the jostling of the camera, but also the cars speeding over a bridge in the background (a nod, again, at broader context). The auditory layering engulfs you in the invented reality. (This careful sound editing also distinguished Simon’s previous HBO venture, the Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill.) With its marching-band sequences, cameos by real musicians, and the like, Treme is also a bonanza for lovers of New Orleans tunes.

And yet, despite all this artistry, the series is, so far, less than riveting. The wealth of characters and issues feels overwhelming, and there’s little overarching narrative drive. Moreover, the show conveys a slight air of self-importance. The Wire sidled into its insightful sociological exploration. Before the show ended, its study of a fictional Baltimore had examined the interactions of crime, law enforcement, politics, the dockworker industry, the school system, and the media. But at face value, the series was a variation on a police procedural: Simon hooked you with that user-friendly genre, and you never had to consciously agree to ponder the workings of a civic institution.

Things are quite different with Treme. With no pop-culture template to lure you in, you’re always aware that you’re watching a glorified cinematic essay on the health of New Orleans and America. Important stuff—but hardly addictive entertainment. Perhaps future Treme episodes will solve the problem by tightening the characters’ predicaments and ratcheting up the suspense. In the meantime, get out the chalk.

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2010-04-23 issue: View Contents
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