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.