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'Treme' premiere offers less blood, and way more music, than 'The Wire'

April 12, 2010 |  7:00 am

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If you’ve heard or seen anything at all about David Simon’s lauded new series "Treme," which premiered last night on HBO, chances are you’ve been told that “music is a main character,” which is true in the same basic way that the medical jargon and hospital setting are central to  "Grey’s Anatomy," or quirky Alaska and frozen nature are to "Northern Exposure" (and Sarah Palin’s "Real American Stories," for that matter), and the sexy bosoms and, er, chariot races are to "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." 

 A musical instrument, a melody or radio signal is central to nearly every scene in the first episode of "Treme" (pronounced “treh-MAY”), just as blood, crack and/or a gun peppered "The Wire." We'd be willing to wager that at some point in the 10 episodes that make up this new show’s debut season, a New Orleans boogie woogie or bounce cut will accompany a murder, some hot sex or a new birth -- and not just the big metaphorical creation-story that opens up the series.

 “That sounds like Rebirth,” says DJ Davis McAlary, a pot-smoking, guitar-wielding, community radio DJ/music freak/jive-ass white dude played by Steve Zahn. He says this while he’s waking up next to his kinda sorta girlfriend and hearing the faint sound of a brass band parading in the distance. Within moments he’s pulled his bare-butted self out of bed and is drawn to the music. The literal “Rebirth” of which he speaks is the Rebirth Brass Band, the legendary New Orleans party band marching outside; the metaphorical rebirth references the day of the first ceremonial musical march through the city after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005.

 Treme04small"Treme" has as its opening shot a close-up of a musician’s mouth with a saxophone reed stuck in it, followed by similar shots of a cigarette being dragged on, and a bottle of Old New Orleans spiced rum. It's three months after the storm, and these glimpses of the salves helping to heal the wounds of post-Katrina New Orleans -- booze, nicotine, tunes, and, a little later, food and weed -- set the tone. (The opening shot in "The Wire," recall, was a close-up of blood trickling down a Baltimore street, followed by a cop’s latex-gloved hand dropping a shell casing into an evidence bag.)

Melody and rhythm are everywhere. As we pan across the living room of Tulane professor Creighton Bernette’s (John Goodman) home, a piano comes into focus. As we enter McAlary’s messy bachelor pad, we see a drum, guitar and a rack of cassettes before even meeting the man himself. Trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is first introduced while negotiating a cab fare, his horn in hand, trying to catch up to jam in the rebirth parade. Albert Lambreaux (Clark Peters) is riding passenger side in a car with his daughter headed back to New Orleans from Baton Rouge, a hulking stand-up bass consuming the back seat. It’s like an orchestra is coming together for the first time, these opening scenes, each instrumentalist arriving onstage and prepping his space, beating the kick drum, tapping his microphone.

 Knee-jerk first impressions of a few key characters:

Creighton Bernette as played by Goodman is the short-fused voice of outrage, the Op Ed mouthpiece delivering arguments and information on the hurricane, the flood, the levees and the politics. A righteously indignant Tulane professor with a lot on his mind, Bernette’s modeled off an activist blogger and married to a public defender. In this first episode, he loses his temper to a too-ridiculous extreme, at both NPR and a British reporter. It’s a little too much, though; Goodman’s volume here is at 11 when it should be at about an 8, and his diatribe/tantrum involving a one-dimensional Brit was the one bum note of the night. If he’s this angry in the first 15 minutes of the series premiere, how his heart going to survive the next nine?

Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander, best known to us "News Radio" freaks as Catherine Duke) plays a slow-burn of a bartender who’s not above beating her raucous patrons with a club to break up a fight. The opening strands of a potential narrative involving the search for her missing brother, who has not been seen since the storm but was thought to have been in police custody, are promising, at least based on Alexander’s totally eye-misting breakdown near the end.

DJ Davis McAlary had a great scene with Elvis Costello at a gig by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Zahn’s demeanor -- fighting with his excited nerves trying to figure out the best way to approach Costello --  was a beautiful thing, and his witty retort involving Keynesian economics, which drew a Costello chuckle, felt like a small victory for geeky fanboys everywhere. DJ Davis has good taste in music, too, the evidence being the Sun Ra poster and his choice of music to blast on his stereo: New Orleans rapper Mystikal of the No Limit posse. The choice of “Bouncin’ Back” was a wonderful surprise, and bodes well for the variety of New Orleans music that we may hear. 

Antoine Batiste is the musician’s musician, a semi-sad-sack “broke-ass horn player” -- as one backyard friend calls him -- with children from different mothers dotted all over southern Louisiana. With his Kangol hat and devil-may-care, just-tryin’-to-get-by vibe, there’s really no telling where Batiste is headed – except that he’s most likely going to be broke.

 Albert Lambreaux is the proud, stubborn chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe who is hellbent on getting his tribe back in order. The memorable climax of the opener – not counting the funeral march that capped the episode -- is Chief Lambreaux’s midnight one-man ceremonial dance, which he performs while outfitted in full yellow and orange Mardi Gras regalia and head dress. The scene is perfectly lit – Lambreaux’s feathers glow like the sun – and the look of majestic determination on his face as he chants in Creole and tries to get a new recruit bodes well for next week’s second installment.

-- Randall Roberts

Top photo: Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux. Credit: Courtesy Paul Schirald / HBO. Bottom photo: Steve Zahn as DJ Davis McAlary. Credit: Courtesy Skip Bolen / HBO

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