Treme: Cue the Violins

With "Treme," David Simon, of "The Wire" fame, says that despite Katrina, New Orleans' music and culture will survive. But that's stating the obvious.

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In one early scene of David Simon's new HBO series, Treme, John Goodman plays an English professor standing on a New Orleans dock, giving an interview to a skeptical BBC TV reporter three months after Hurricane Katrina.

When the BBC reporter suggests the city should be allowed to rot, the professor grabs the video camera and tries to toss it overboard. Later, he begrudgingly gives another phone interview to an NPR reporter he expects to be more enlightened than the rest of the reporters. "It was NOT a natural disaster!" he thunders. "It was a man-made disaster of EPIC proportions!" Eventually, he aborts the call in a fusillade of curses.

This is series co-creator David Simon tweaking his former colleagues in the news media. Never mind that Simon's seminal HBO series, The Wire, achieved something much more important than he ever could in his old life as a newspaperman. Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, still treats his former life as a journalist like a bitter ex whose spouse got the kids, the house, the cars and his vinyl record collection.

So Goodman's scene is informing us: the news media? Clueless. They got Hurricane Katrina wrong, wrong, wrong!

So what exactly can viewers learn about life in the months following the storm in the opening episodes of Treme?  Hurricane Katrina = sad. New Orleans music = good. Cops acted like jerks after the storm. Several noble white people bravely swooped in to try to make things right.

The black characters play music and commiserate over their plight. The white characters, like the attorney who plays Goodman's wife, speak truth to power and try to bring the jerks to justice. One such white character, a stoner High Fidelity-like music snob, kindly gives a gay gentrifier a clue: "This is the Treme, dude--the most musically important black neighborhood in America."

Treme is saying that despite the (man-made!) tragedy, "black" New Orleans music and culture will endure. Through music, New Orleans honors the dead and achieves kind of a rebirth. Problem is, that's pretty much stating the obvious.

Kind of like the camera lingering on the plucky blonde restaurateur who snaps at anyone who asks about the state of her house, " Don't ask!," then sits alone in her tattered house, weeping.

To be fair, my expectations are unreasonably high for Treme because of the genius that Simon achieved in The Wire, which never won an Emmy but was widely lauded as the best that television had to offer. And critics keep piling on my expectations with New York Times magazine cover stories, university courses and such. But these expectations are impossible to meet. The Wire was decades in the making for the Maryland-born-and-raised Simon. The pitch-perfect dialogue, the hot-from-the-streets jargon, the inside cop jokes, all reflected Simon's many years on the cops beat following around a family of Baltimore drug addicts. He was in precisely the right place to tell the story of what happens on both sides of the wiretap. He also had enough time to synthesize all of that reporting into an analysis of what that means for cities and society at large.