REASON TO WATCH
Most important HBO series launch in years, created by producers of "The Wire," David Simon and Eric Overmyer (and the late writer David Mills).
Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
What is "Treme?" Pronounced "TREM-ay," it's a historic black neighborhood, just north of New Orleans' central business district, not far from the Mississippi. It was spared some of the worst Katrina flooding - and it's also the cradle of jazz.
The new HBO series takes place there three months after Katrina. The city is wrecked and largely abandoned, mostly free of crime because (as someone says) "that's all gone to Houston," and mostly free of money, too. The federal disaster relief effort is largely invisible, so those who stayed behind are struggling to survive. They've stayed simply because they refused to leave, while their passion and dedication have re-energized the place, which pulses with music and life.
The opening seconds are a velocity of images and sounds - mouths laughing, fingers working trumpet pistons, cigarettes dangling, amid Dixieland jazz. There are several parallel stories. Tulane professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) is furious that New Orleans has been ignored, while musician-DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) battles gay neighbors he says are gentrifying the Treme, and scrapes for dollars. The core stories belong to trombonist Antoine Baptiste (Wendell Pierce), his ex, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) and Mardi Gras chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) because you sense that New Orleans would simply cease to exit without people like them.
My say: It'll be fun to see the great disconnect between the critical and viewer reception to "Treme." The former will fawn. The latter will yawn. In fact, what Simon is asking everyone to do is scrub their minds clean of all images, impressions and biases related to New Orleans, pre- or post-Katrina. With "Treme," he and Overmyer are rebuilding that picture for them, frame by frame.
It's a methodical and pointillist process, requiring patience (on your part) and time. Stories, per se, don't "pop," but accrete; the narrative rhythm takes time to build and come into focus. Characters and their lives slowly become whole, then utterly real. This is often more like documentary-style narrative - think Frederick Wiseman, or Barbara Kopple, or, yes, David Simon of "The Wire" - than straight TV entertainment.
Bottom line: Give "Treme" all the time it needs. This is a spectacular new series, with some stunning performances - Pierce, Peters, Zahn, in particular - and gorgeous music. You'll become hooked.