DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This weekend, HBO premieres "Treme," the new dramatic series from David Simon, who also created "The Wire." That ambitious dramatic series was all about Baltimore, its citizens, its politics and its problems.
For "Treme," Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer head further south to New Orleans. On today's show, we'll speak with both Simon and Overmyer, but first a preview of "Treme" from our TV critic, David Bianculli.
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The first thing you see at the beginning of "Treme" are the superimposed words that define the setting for this New Orleans drama: three months after. It doesn't say after what, and it doesn't have to. It's 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina, and the residents in the buildings that are left are both extremely tough and extremely fragile.
They include college professor Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, who is called upon to give voice to the people, as in this interview with a visiting British TV journalist, who takes Bernette out to a levy to film him, but even with the professor's young daughter watching off-camera, he can't talk long about the flood without having his own temper rise.
(Soundbite of television program, "Treme")
Mr. JOHN GOODMAN (Actor): (As Creighton Bernette) The explosion people heard was actually an unsecured barge ramming into the canal wall, not dynamite.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) People think there was a conspiracy to breach the levies.
Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) To what end, drown 80 percent of the city? In whose interest was that? Why displace so many working-class folks, black and white? It makes no sense.
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Are you saying this was a natural disaster, pure and simple?
Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) A natural disaster?
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) A hurricane is.
Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe, a federal (bleep)-up of epic proportions and decades in the making.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Daddy.
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) We can edit that out, no worries.
Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) The levies were not...
BIANCULLI: In the opening credits, we see the interiors and exteriors of building after building, all of them discolored by flood markings. The characters in "Treme" have been marked just as clearly, but they're all determined to move ahead and reclaim their lives and their city. And while the location shooting in New Orleans is an absolute necessity to the success of "Treme," that was no guarantee of success.
Shortly after Katrina, the Fox Network gave us "K-Ville," a short-lived drama that filmed in the Gulf but never captured it. "Treme" does capture it beautifully by being understated, by letting the beauty and the devastation, the music and the eerie silences bump up against one another constantly.
And the secret weapon of this show is its cast. It may take a while to get to know these characters because we're thrown into their world without explanation of apology, but because of their past TV roles, we're already on their side and ready to go.
John Goodman may be the most prominent name here, with decades of good will, but he's by no means alone. His wife, attorney Toni Bernette, is played by Melissa Leo from "Homicide: Life on the Street." Kim Dickens, who plays a struggling restaurant owner named Janette, played prostitute Joanie Stubbs on "Deadwood." And lots of the players come from what might be called the David Simon Repertory Company: Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters from "The Wire," Khandi Alexander from "The Corner."
Pierce, who played Bunk on "The Wire," has one of the juiciest roles here, as a trombone player named Antoine Batiste, but every character and every actor is excellent. It's a sign of a great TV series when you don't care which characters are onscreen because you're interested in them all, and very quickly, "Treme" establishes itself as that type of series.
Best of all, perhaps, is what it does with the music. Without getting sappy or preachy about it, "Treme" demonstrates, early and often, how organic music is to the culture of New Orleans. Real-life musicians like Dr. John and Elvis Costello make the rounds in the recording studios, and music is everywhere, from funeral parade lines to tunes on the radio and songs from street buskers. Music is always lurking in the background, and every so often, it rises to the surface, takes center stage and all but takes your breath away with its defiant vitality.
There's a very sad subtext to "Treme" because one of its writers, David Mills, died suddenly on the set last week. He also worked with David Simon on "The Wire" and "The Corner," and his script for Episode 3 of "Treme," the first of his contributions to this series, ends with a funeral.
But it also includes a lovely moment, one that typifies not only the grace of Mills' writing but the beauty of "Treme" and the spirit of New Orleans. It happens when trombone player Antoine, played by Wendell Pierce, is leaving a strip club after playing a depressing one-night stand there as a fill-in member of the house band. Outside, he comes upon a female violinist who is busking for coins, and even though he's too tired to blow his horn, he loves what she's doing enough to sing along. At the end of a bad night, the music remains redemptive.
(Soundbite of television program, "Treme")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): (As Antoine Batiste) Let me get some of that, let me get some of that...
(Singing) I need your love so badly. I love you oh so madly. But I don't stand a ghost of a chance with you...
BIANCULLI: That moment sets a magical mood, but moments later, that mood is shattered in a surprising and disturbing way that leads to something else entirely.
"Treme" from the start is like one of those haunting classic pieces of jazz from New Orleans. Get one taste, and you're not likely to forget it.
DAVIES: David Bianculli writes tvworthwatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University. Coming up, we hear from David Simon and Eric Overmyer. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)