As with New Orleans residents still grappling with Hurricane Katrina’s bitter aftermath, patience is required in viewing “Treme.” Yet here, at least, that virtue is rewarded. Producer David Simon’s “The Wire” charted a vicious cycle of poverty, violence, neglect and political ass-covering in a corroding American city; his latest urban tragedy takes a lower-key approach, examining the hardscrabble existence of musicians, restaurateurs and others desperately clinging to their way of life in a damaged, wounded town. Rich, textured and too leisurely in its gait, “Treme” won’t be to everyone’s taste, but by episode three, a hardy band will be hopelessly hooked.
In producing the show (co-created with Eric Overmyer), Simon is joined by collaborators associated with earlier landmark offerings — “The Wire,” “The Corner” and “Homicide” (which was based on the former journalist’s book). And if there’s a connective tissue to those projects along with the miniseries “Generation Kill,” it’s the bracingly uncompromising nature of Simon’s work. The people here are meant to feel real; whether an audience likes them — and what happens to them — is essentially left to the viewer.
Introducing an assortment of characters, the 80-minute opening to this 10-part series is, to say the least, challenging. Framed by musical sequences, the premiere establishes the show’s tone but does little to crystallize its focus.
By the second hour, however, relationships become clearer, characters begin crossing into each other’s orbits and a loose rhythm begins to coalesce. It’s as if the producers have sought to approximate jazz phrasings for a TV audience weaned on pop ballads.
Everyone appears to be struggling in Treme — the neighborhood where jazz was born — as the show begins, three months after the levees broke. At the rough center is Antoine (Wendell Pierce), a trombonist scraping to find any gig he can, which eventually includes playing in a strip bar. His ex-wife, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), is trying to maintain a bar while searching for her missing brother, with help from a civil-rights attorney (Melissa Leo) married to a cantankerous English-lit professor (John Goodman).
“Treme” would be a mouthful if it ended there, but that’s only the beginning. Mardi Gras Indian chief/handyman Albert (Clarke Peters) returns home over the objections of his grown children, musical nerd Davis (Steve Zahn) rails against pretty much everything, and his sometimes bed-mate Janette (Kim Dickens) labors to keep her restaurant afloat. There’s also a young pair of street musicians (Michiel Huisman, Lucia Micarelli) whose contributions to the series remain vague three episodes in.
A brooding sense of anger undergirds the show, with the frequent sound of helicopters creating the atmosphere of occupied territory. Residents can barely conceal their contempt for visiting media, tourists and the police, while wondering who among those forced to flee might actually return.
If you’re not enamored of jazz, “Treme’s” extended musical interludes will play like something of a slog, and keeping track of the disparate stories is nettlesome at first. Fortunately, the talent on display — particularly Goodman, Alexander, and “Wire” alums Pierce (a New Orleans native) and Peters — is such that watching them read the phone book would be superior to much of what’s on TV.
“Everyone loves New Orleans music,” Albert grumbles in the second hour. “New Orleans people?” The question is left hanging.
Simon’s genius (and to an extent his curse) is a facility for crafting TV programs that make their audience feel as if they’re being produced just for them. That’s hardly a recipe for popular success, and explains why his output has predominantly been confined to pay TV.
Still, a luxury outfit like HBO can probably live with those limitations, and “Treme” sure isn’t fast food.