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'Treme' shines a spotlight back on New Orleans

DAMASO REYES | 4/12/2011, 5:28 p.m.
Wendall Pierce in a scene from HBO’s “Treme”

It seems as if we are constantly forgetting even as we seek to remember. Disasters and tragedies burn bright in our collective imaginations for a few days or weeks, possibly even months or years, but slowly, with the passage of time, they fade into the background. Some would say that New Orleans was forgotten even before the floodwaters of Katrina had crested, destroying much of that city. But "Treme," the new series from HBO, brings us back to New Orleans and those who were left behind and who came back.

The series starts three months after Katrina in 2005, when bodies were still being found and the city was struggling to get back on its feet. National guardsmen still patrolled the streets and life was far from normal. Created by David Simon, a former reporter and creator of the much-acclaimed HBO series "The Wire," "Treme" has much to live up to.

While the show has many of the same elements that made "The Wire" the best show on television, including two of its best actors, "Treme" has a much different feel. Music pervades every episode and nearly every scene.

"Treme" takes us into a world few of us will ever know: hard working musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and working class folks just trying to rebuild their lives in the city we love. "Treme" doesn't stop to explain what we see--we have to learn as we go along, and that is perhaps the best thing about the show.

The central core of the show is led by Antoine Batiste (played by New Orleans native Wendell Pierce), a talented but less than hardworking trombonist living from one gig to the next. His penchant for lovely ladies doesn't help, and in the wake of the storm, he is trying to scrounge up enough gigs to support his girlfriend and their young daughter. His ex-wife, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, is the owner of a local bar, who is trying to rebuild while she searches for her brother, who was picked up by the police just before the storm hit and hasn't been heard from since. A local civil rights lawyer, Toni Berdette (Melissa Leo), is trying to help her find her brother while putting up with her brilliant but moody professor of a husband Creighton (John Goodman), who takes any opportunity to talk to the media about this manmade disaster.

On the other end of the spectrum, but not really, is local DJ and would-be musician David McAlary (Steve Zahn), whose passion for preserving New Orleans' music is second only to his own ego. Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) has just come back to the city to find his home in ruins and rebuild a local bar that served as a practice hall for his buddies. He is a Mardi Gras Indian and a big chief, and has no plans on leaving his city ever again.

There are dozens of minor and supporting characters, many played by non-actors from New Orleans. If you are looking for something fast-paced and action-packed, "Treme" is not your show. However, the series unfolds slowly. In fact, not much "happens" in the first three episodes. But we do learn about the city and its people and how the lives of the disparate characters have become intertwined. We see them love and fight and struggle and cheat and generally act like human beings with all the flaws that come along with that label. The acting is top notch and the story is compelling, if you give it the time it deserves. Over the coming months and years, "Treme" very well may become one of the best shows on television. Right now, it is off to a very good start.