‘Treme’ Hits Stride in Poignant Mardi Gras Hour

Although I haven’t loved “Treme” as much as David Simon’s past efforts for HBO (“The Wire,” “Generation Kill,” “The Corner”), the June 6 episode — set during the first Mardi Gras following Hurricane Katrina — feels like a turning point for the series.

Thus far, the program’s myriad subplots about those trying to hold their lives together after the storm have felt intriguing but disjointed. Too much of the show, frankly, has been about capturing the city’s unique rhythms, atmosphere and music
without necessarily advancing the narrative, but that changes — or at
least comes into crisper focus — in this latest hour (the eighth of 10 for the first season).

In essence, all those parallel lines begin to intersect in more satisfying ways, while providing perhaps the
Treme01 best insight yet into what distinguishes New Orleans from other places — and the fierce determination of some residents to maintain what they see not just as a home but a way of life. Watching locals dive into the pageantry and silliness of Mardi Gras has particular emotional resonance, moreover, given the recent intrusion of real-life events, with the BP oil spill delivering another man-made blow to the still-reeling Gulf.

John Goodman, in particular, has been terrific as the angry professor who takes to YouTube to vent against those who would write off the city (there’s a strong undercurrent of anger throughout), but the performances are solid from top to bottom, including Wendell Pierce as a flawed, womanizing trombone player and Khandi Alexander as his ex-wife, a bartender who has spent months trying to locate her missing brother.

“Treme” will pass the baton to “True Blood,” a much easier-to-absorb HBO drama, with generous dollops of sex and gore. Yet even when they fall short, Simon’s shows go a long way toward distinguishing the pay channel from everything else on television. I mean, everybody is trying to get a piece of sexy vampires, but virtually no one else would dare to tackle a concept as challenging and uncompromising as this.

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