David Simon's rich, complex shows have always been rewarding to watch alone, but they almost demand conversation, whether it's a debate over Baltimore's future or a reality check at a particularly audacious act of cruelty, style, or recklessness. His new show, an exploration of New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, premieres on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m. And to start the inevitable discussion, Alyssa Rosenberg, Latoya Peterson, Matthew Yglesias, Anna John, Kay Stieger, and Rachael Brown will be talking Treme. First up: Alyssa on what makes Treme different from Simon's other shows.
David Simon, the reporter-turned television auteur, is a passionate man, though he's generally admired more for his dark heart than his bleeding one. Fans of his uncompromisingly tough efforts, like The Wire and Generation Kill may be somewhat surprised to learn that he got his start with a classic tear-jerker. There's something odd about classing this American Dickens, this relentless seer of the death of institutions, as a sentimentalist. But the first Homicide episode he wrote, the Season 2 premiere "Bop Gun," was a deliberately heart-tugging tragedy, starring Robin Williams as a Baltimore tourist who saw his wife shot in front of him during a mugging, and a very young Jake Gyllenhaal as his angry, grieving son.
So it seems appropriate that Treme, Simon's new show, is a valentine with a devious, violent heart. I say devious because after the first episode, I didn't quite know what to make of the show. And the second upset my understanding of what I'd seen entirely.
Treme meanders along with a group of loosely connected New Orleans natives and transplants. Creighton, a professor with a habit of getting angry in interviews and Toni, his wife, an aggressive lawyer who frequently sues the police, live on Octavia Street, the "Isle of Denial," as the sheriff puts it to her, not in an entirely unfriendly way. They are regulars at a restaurant run by Janette, whose ""kind of...not specifically or on a consistent basis" boyfriend, Davis, has just been bounced from his DJing job. Davis hangs out at some of the same clubs where Antoine Baptiste scrapes by on irregular gigs, using his trombone as collateral for cab rides he cannot pay for. Antione's ex-wife, Ladonna, struggles to get her roof repaired, and is relying on Toni to find her brother David, missing in the storm. And Antoine's gigs throw him into the occasional path of Delmond, a touring trumpet player who has returned home to help his father, Albert, chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians and a skilled contractor, settle back in after a sojourn in Dallas.
The show is—as befits a David Simon production—profane, challenging, and frequently funny. But it also relies on a deep assumption of kindness between its main characters. In The Wire, such emotions were portents of doom: D'Angelo Barksdale, a young drug dealer, was marked for jail and worse the moment he showed signs of sensitivity. Homicide's detectives may wield gold shields, but they're still vulnerable to heartbreak, suicide, and violent death. Watching Treme, I found myself expecting Antoine to be turned down when he asked for a loan, an extension on paying cab fare, or help finding a gig, and intensely relieved when his friends amiably agreed to help him out.
As Albert tried to rally his old Indian tribe, I predicted that Robinette, a junk hauler and member of another tribe, would turn down Albert's offer to practice with him. I didn't anticipate him to have a change of heart when Albert showed up at his house in full regalia, late at night, the feathers of his uniform glowing gold and red. "That's real pretty chief. I wondered if I was ever going to see something like that again," Robinette admits wistfully, a rare emotion in the more recent Simon oeuvre. "There might not even be no carnival this year....Alright, I'll be around by the bar tomorrow afternoon."
Simon has, to a certain extent, conditioned his viewers to the sourness of disappointment and the rank taste of genuine human tragedy. And so I was suspicious when the premiere episode began as it ended, with music and a parade, with the intimation of Albert's saintliness, the implication that Toni is on the right track in the search for Ladonna's missing brother. By the second episode, however, Albert is vigorously washing his hands in a backyard faucet after delivering a brutal beating to a man who stole his carpenters' tools. His son has been arrested after a recording session with Elvis Costello. And Toni has found something ugly and expected at the end of that track.
Treme is a David Simon show after all, and has the potential to be a great one. But despite the signs of darkness in the second episode, the series' gorgeous camerawork, extended musical and dance sequences, lingering attention to food and drink suggest it may also be his show most exquisitely attached and attuned to the sentimental pleasures of life. Treme will be a show about hard heads, I think, but it's expansively about hearts.