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.
In Treme, virtually every storyline is a reaction to Hurricane Katrina. In the first few episodes, it gets a bit tedious to experience the slow-moving progress, of, for instance, cleaning out a house. Of scanning newspaper obits for friends. Of keeping a restaurant afloat with a skeleton staff, and trying to find a brother who has been lost during the storm.
One scene stars the actor Wendell Pierce (a Nawlins native), who plays the trombone-playing ladies man, as he descends into camp and/or bad black porn. "You know what they call my instrument, right?' he says, thrusting mid-coitus. "The bone. Unnnnh. I play the bone." The scene's punch line was to highlight the corrupt ways the feds decide whom to dole out FEMA trailers, but it's an awfully cheesy and gratuitously sexual route to doing it.
That is not to say there aren't many of the delicious signatures that have come to be David Simon's trademarks: He and director Ernest Dickerson sweat the small stuff: The perfect camera angle. The composition of the shot of the FEMA trailer next to the shotgun house. The perfect black Nawlins accent. (I'm assuming it will eventually emerge that the white characters who sound like they are from Peoria are transplants.) And then there are cameos of real-life New Orleans jazz legends like Dr. John—and the gorgeously Pentecostal fury of the music.
One of the most difficult tasks artists must do is to make sense of horrific tragedy without hearing violins. I can't think of anyone who has made a Katrina masterpiece yet. But, unlike anything you can see on television or on film, Simon is a storyteller who takes his time. It's early in the series, so there is plenty of opportunity for a more transcendent story arc to emerge beyond the obvious headlines.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.