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Post-Katrina New Orleans Rises in Treme

The story of post-Katrina New Orleans all but begs to be told in series form, and it’s a blessing, not a curse, that the artistic community waited until President George W. Bush left office to tackle it. Had the new HBO series Treme aired two years ago, it likely would have piled up the lectures against the Bush administration for its actions in the wake of the disaster. Heck, Kanye West would have had a cameo.

Instead, the series puts the focus right where it belongs, on a deeply proud city coming to grips with a calamity no one should ever have to endure. David Simon‘s Treme, debuting tonight on HBO, follows New Orleans residents a mere three months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The city is limping back to life — witness a rag-tag group of musicians assembling to bring music back to the neighborhood. Their street carnival is a clumsy affair: no one is wearing a uniform and musicians filter in and out of the lineup as they please. But their faces beam with pleasure with every note, and the citizens they pass lose themselves in the music. It’s a beautiful way to start a series.

Antoine (Wendell Pierce) plays the trombone for any gig he can secure, while juggling emotional ties to his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) and kids from his two relationships. Davis Mc­Alary (Steve Zahn) is a local disk jockey and former musician who lives and breathes New Orleans culture, but he’s also a first-class jerk. It’s a ripe role for the character actor, and one which may nudge him into a new, deserved level of fame. Davis’ semi-girlfriend, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens of Deadwood), runs a bustling restaurant but can’t find enough help to keep the customers satisfied.

The only overtly political creature in Treme is Creighton (the great John Goodman), an English professor who’s proud of his city and doesn’t mind telling it to interviewers who dare dial him up. In one politically charged scene, Creighton blasts a smug British journalist who questions whether a city like New Orleans is worth being rebuilt in the first place. Creighton rages against the government for its handling of Katrina, firing off rounds of blame in all directions: “The flooding of New Orleans was a federal f***-up of epic proportions,” he rages, before hurling the man’s microphone into the river. Conservative audiences will wince here, expecting a “blame Bush” diatribe at any moment. But Creighton’s anger is as turbulent as the hurricane itself, and just as unfocused. It’s a contrived scene, but Goodman displays the fury many felt as the layers of society failed to rally in time to save the city. To tell this story and not have this element represented would have been a cheat.

Early themes snaking through the first two episodes made available to the press include the search for a missing man who could be dead or simply lost in the criminal justice system, and the housing woes faced by residents whose homes are no longer safe. Watching an older man return to his home and step through its ravaged rooms is haunting, and one of many examples where the show reveals the hurricane’s devastation with restraint.

Simon, the creator of the critically adored HBO series The Wire, brings a remarkable sense of time and place to his newest series. The backgrounds, the music, and the characters all feel authentic, as if we’ve been parachuted into the city just when life was starting to resemble the rhythms in place before the hurricane. And even if the dramatic elements leave viewers cold, they may come back to hear the music, a tapestry of foot-stomping tunes unlike what’s played on any other show.

What’s missing so far is a compelling reason to revisit these characters. Potential abounds with both Creighton and Davis — the professor’s anti-PC outbursts alone could be teased into a must-see attraction. And Pierce’s big-hearted performance could easily become the show’s focal point with the right tweaking.

Treme doesn’t let the country’s cultural reaction to Hurricane Katrina off the hook. One subplot involves a church group that visits the ravaged city hoping to lend a hand. They’re immediately dismissed by a surly local musician (Michael Huisman) who feels their pity a bit too strongly. But the group eventually sees the “real” New Orleans culture and is changed by the experience.

The new series lacks the magnetic attraction of shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, but HBO’s latest offering could mature into one of its most affecting programs. All the elements appear to be firmly in place for just such an evolution.