The first thing I noticed in New Orleans was the freeway overpasses.
Sent to the Crescent City five months after Hurricane Katrina to watch its Times Picayune newspaper rise from the flood damage, I saw row after row of dusty, junked cars sitting under highway overpasses, towed by overburdened public works employees and left there, as if the entire city parked for a street parade and never left.
When I watched the first episode of HBO's New Orleans-set drama Treme and saw one of those dusty hulks sitting in the background — no explanation needed or provided — I knew co-creator David Simon and his crew had nailed something special.
I can't pretend to be objective about this one. Simon, a former journalist who created The Wire and wrote the book that inspired NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, is one of my favorite storytellers.
And he's tackling a tale I saw unfold up close; the struggle of people at the heart of a storied American city to recover from one of the worst disasters to befall a large modern U.S. community.
Treme refers to a neighborhood in New Orleans where jazz was supposedly invented, producing amazing musicians such as trumpeter Sidney Bechet. The vibrant, beating heart of Simon's series traces efforts of local musicians to piece their lives back together three months after the flood — embodied in Wire alum (and Nawlins native) Wendell Pierce as long-suffering trombone player, Antoine Batiste.
Stuck in a distant neighborhood living with a baby mama he doesn't seem too sure he likes, Batiste hustles from club gig to funeral procession to backing dancers in a strip joint for cash. Begging for credit from cab drivers and extra dollars from bandleaders, he's learning a new hustle in a city where Katrina changed all the rules.
At times, Treme can feel like a slyly crafted litany of all the issues that tormented New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath, with CSI: Miami alum Khandi Alexander as a bar owner whose wayward son vanished in the area's Byzantine jail system after the flood, and Kim Dickens (The Blind Side) as a restaurant owner struggling to stay open because so many waiters, cooks and hostesses have left town.
Some critics have assumed Simon's own progressive passions fueled the rants of John Goodman's impassioned character Creighton Burnette — a college English professor who dissolves into fits of anger when a journalist calls Katrina a natural disaster (he tells an intemperate British reporter Katrina was "a federal f--- up of epic proportions" before throwing his microphone in a canal).
Anyone who spent time in New Orleans after the disaster knows that was a huge issue for some locals, who said the storm didn't destroy the city. What nearly killed the town was the failure of government-maintained levies to hold back the flood water and to help people trapped by the deluge.
That passion and Simon's painstaking ear for language turns Treme into an engrossing peek inside the strata of New Orleans' widely diverse communities, capturing a litany of outsize characters like images in a finely crafted coffee table book. (Extra props are reserved for writer and longtime Simon pal David Mills, a Homicide and NYPD Blue alum who died on the set April 6 of a brain aneurysm.)
I have no idea whether someone who hasn't seen these images — including a house uprooted by flood waters, sitting in the middle of a street like it was built there — in person will get it. But for me, Treme captured New Orleans' passionate, sometimes futile struggle to rebuild in a way few other TV projects do. It's a can't-miss dissertation on the disaster of the decade.
Treme debuts at 10 tonight on HBO.