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Josh Reviews the Premiere Episode of Treme

April 13th, 2010
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Can we all just agree that The Wire is the greatest television show ever made?

Anyone who has seen The Wire surely must agree with that (admittedly bold) statement.  As for the rest of you — what are you waiting for??  (Until you’ve seen this masterpiece, I’m really not interested in your opinion.)

I would imagine that anyone in the cult of The Wire couldn’t help but be interested, as I was, in creator David Simon’s new HBO series Treme (pronounced Tre-MAY) set in New Orleans three months after Katrina.  I took in the premiere episode, “Do You Know What it Means” earlier this week, and I am happy to report that I am totally and unabashedly hooked.

The Wire was a devastating critique of the modern American city.  Over the course of five seasons, Mr. Simon and his extraordinary team of writers explored the inadequacies and failures of society on every level of the city of Baltimore: from the kids on the corners to the cops on the street to the politicians in their offices, not to mention the detectives, the judges, the newspapermen (and women), the D.A.s, the crime lords, and on and on.  So when I read last year that Mr. Simon was developing a show about New Orleans, that seemed to me to be a logical follow-up.  In New Orleans after Katrina, Mr. Simon had found a city in which the seemingly intractable problems of Baltimore paled in comparison.

And yet, I was pleasantly surprised by just how upbeat the pilot of Treme was.  Oh, don’t misunderstand me, there is plenty of horrible tragedy on display, and I have no doubt that, as the season progresses, further Job-like troubles await many of the characters to whom we were introduced in this first installment.  But along with the horror, Treme contained a lot of hope as well.

An enormous factor in that tone is the way that so much astoundingly wonderful music is interwoven into the story being told.  Many of the main characters in Treme (such as the trombone-player Antoine, played by Wendell Piece, who so memorably played Bunk on The Wire) are musicians, and the pilot frequently pauses to allow us to immerse ourselves in the wonderful music of New Orleans.  The music is almost the primary character in the show.  And so much of the music is so phenomenal that it’s hard not to feel good listening to it.  This provides a powerful counterpoint to the tough drama found in the story of a city on the brink.

The pilot episode introduces us to a large ensemble of characters.  As in The Wire, these characters are from a wide variety of professions and social strata.  Also as in The Wire, each character seems — even in just this first episode — to be fleshed out and interesting.  I can’t wait to see where all of their stories go.  To try to list every character would be folly — suffice to say that there are some terrific actors (some familiar, some not) to be seen here.  Standout characters for me include Wendell Pierce’s trombone-player Antoine and the beleaguered restaurant-owner Janette, played by Kim Dickens (familiar to fans of Lost as Sawyer’s former flame and Kate’s former partner-in-crime Cassidy).  The only actor in the ensemble I wasn’t quite taken with was Steve Zahn’s character Davis.  But I guess he’s supposed to be a bit annoying.  We’ll see where his story goes.

In addition to being narratively compelling, this initial installment looked absolutely stunning.  The cinematography was beautiful, and there was some really interesting camerawork, shot-composition, and editing on display.  A lot of time was invested in this episode in introducing viewers to the neighborhood of Treme, and so the camera would often highlight a background character in the crowd, or the hands of a musician working his instrument, or some other detail that, when taken with all of the other tiny details, really helped bring the viewer into the experience of life in New Orleans.  In every way, this episode really looked to me like a movie.  (And at a run-time, for this pilot episode, of almost an hour-and-a-half, it practically WAS a movie!!)

Based on this first episode, Treme appears to have much of the sophistication and complexity of The Wire, while also being an entirely different, unique creation of its own.  What more could I ask for?  Can’t wait for the remaining nine episodes of season one.

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