Treme is an HBO TV series about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who previously collaborated on Homicide: Life on the Street and the masterpiece HBO series The Wire, Treme is named for the New Orleans neighborhood where jazz music was born, which remains the heart of New Orleans music culture and tradition. The series celebrates and venerates this music, culture, and tradition through a cast of fictional characters — based in some cases on actual persons — mingled with actual New Orleans musicians and other personalities, and shot largely in actual New Orleans locations, and at actual events such as Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The series, which ran on HBO from April 2010 to December 2013, begins “three months after” Hurricane Katrina (so in late autumn of 2005) as residents are still cleaning up after the flooding, still discovering bodies, and just beginning to clear debris and start rebuilding. Treme then follows its characters through the following months and years, as they attempt to put their lives and their city back together and move forward.

We just finished watching all 36 episodes over the past 10 weeks, and I feel greatly enriched by it. Treme is a show made with deep love, respect, and understanding of human beings and the amazing culture they create in this special city. It is also a poignant reflection on modern America and the tension between the people and the powers that be as we struggle to build decent lives in a rapidly shifting landscape.

The complete series on disc

Watching the complete series on disc offers several advantages over cable. For one, there’s no waiting between seasons and forgetting about storylines or characters, so you get a more comprehensive experience. Secondly, discs offer the ability to re-watch, and the option of subtitles, which can clarify unfamiliar language when necessary. Third, discs come with commentaries. In the case of Treme, a decent number of the episodes have commentaries from the creators and cast, and most of the episodes have a second commentary specifically about the music, giving details on the many songs and artists incorporated as background music, or seen playing live in bars, clubs, recording studios, and concert halls throughout the series. (As a side note, there was an NPR story about Deon Taylor over the weekend which noted that the commentaries included on discs seved as his first lessons in filmmaking.)

The closest thing I can compare Treme to is Northern Exposure, another outstanding series about a bunch of people in a unique town. Both shows incorporated aspects of local government, restaurant businesses, tribal societies, and quirky disc jockeys along with the inter-character drama and romance. The two shows’ theme songs are even a bit similar. But where Northern Exposure took place in a cozy, fictional dream village, Treme takes place in a very real New Orleans, with violence and death, decay, oppression, corruption, and lots of live music mixed into the daily struggles of these beloved characters.

The dismaying conduct of the New Orleans Police Department depicted in Treme echoed nationwide this past year in Ferguson, Missouri and related incidents. Creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer have been aware of these realities for a long time.

Treme’s cast

A couple of Treme‘s stars previously starred in The Wire. New Orleans native Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, a traditional jazz trombonist hustling from club to club in taxi cabs as he tries to support his girlfriend Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) and their daughter, plus his sons from a previous marriage. Clarke Peters is Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian with a flood-damaged house to fix and an elaborate new suit to sew each year in every minute of his spare time. His son Delmond Lambreaux (played by Rob Brown) is a recognized trumpeter who has moved on to modern jazz in New York.

Khandi Alexander, who previously worked with David Simon on The Corner, stars as LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Antoine’s ex-wife, who operates a new Orleans bar called Gigi’s and is remarried to a Baton Rouge dentist. Melissa Leo, a veteran of Homicide: Life on the Street, plays Toni Bernette, a civil rights attorney representing powerless people against a crushing law enforcement system. Her husband Creighton Bernette (played by New Orleans resident John Goodman) is an an English professor at Tulane University and a fervent defender of all things New Orleans. Her daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) finishes high school and enters college as the series progresses.

Kim Dickens (Deadwood, Gone Girl) stars as Janette Desautel, a talented young chef grappling with the business side of her industry. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine plays Jacques, her sous chef. Much of Treme‘s restaurant-related scripting is the work of chef-author-TV personality Anthony Bourdain. Violinist Lucia Micarelli plays Annie Talarico, who’s busking on the street of New Orleans with her keyboardist/guitarist boyfriend Sonny (Michiel Huisman).

Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn, is a frenetic music enthusiast, sometime musician, and sometime disc jockey at New Orleans public radio station WWOZ. David Morse is Lieutenant Terry Colson of the NOPD. Jon Seda plays Nelson Hidalgo, a politically-connected developer looking to profit from the rebuilding of the city. Chris Coy is L.P. Everett, a reporter based on the real-life Adam Clay Thompson of ProPublica.

At first, it’s hard to know what to make of Treme. There’s no clear plot right away, the Davis McAlary character is slightly annoying, and the post-Katrina mess seems overwhelming. You should stick with it, though, because David Simon and Eric Overmyer know what they’re doing. They created The Wire, after all — possibly the greatest TV drama of all time. By the end of Season One, a number of elements will come together and send shivers up and down your spine. You’ll be hooked for the duration, cheering for McAlary and everyone else. It will be very difficult to press “Play’ on the final episode, knowing that doing so will bring the series to an end.

Treme is not perfect. There might be a teaspoon too much adoration of New Orleans. Season Four is shortened to just five episodes, causing a couple of storylines to be slightly rushed to conclusion. But there are many worse things to watch and few better.

Treme’s music

Have I mentioned Treme‘s music at all? In addition to the show’s incidental background music — like songs played on WWOZ and so on — there are in-studio and onstage appearances from such artists as Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins, Fats Domino, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Sonny Landreth, Allen Toussaint, Rebirth Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, Coco Robicheaux, John Boutté, New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle (in a recurring role as musician Harley Wyatt), Justin Townes Earle, Donald Harrison, Jr., Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Red Stick Ramblers, The Pine Leaf Boys, Irma Thomas, Theresa Andersson, The Neville Brothers, and on and on. At the very least, watching Treme can greatly expand your musical horizons and inspire a slew of MP3 downloads. (There are soundtrack albums from Season One and Saeson Two — plus an unofficial Music of Treme website with music lists.)

Each season includes a Mardi Gras (Season Two includes both a New Orleans Mardi Gras and an astounding Cajun Mardi Gras), and there are second line parades, funerals, Mardi Gras Indian rehearsals, Jazz Fest, and live performances in all sorts of real New Orleans clubs.

With a lull in the TV season, Mardi Gras around the corner, and warm weather still six or eight weeks away in much of the country, there’s no better time than the present to relax and absorb the atmosphere of one of America’s greatest cities as experienced by a tremendous cast of characters and presented by some of our most skilled and thoughtful storytellers.

Other resources

  • The Times-Picayune has an extensive Treme section on its website
  • PBS: FRONTLINE: Law & Disorder — a joint project with the Times-Picayune and ProPublica investigating questionable police shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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