"All you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?" -DavisJust as he did with the pilot for "The Wire," David Simon (there with Ed Burns, here with Eric Overmyer) has no problem plunking his audience down into the middle of what's a foreign country to many of us and assuming we'll pick up the language as we go. So we open with two men (who turn out not to be significant characters) haggling over the fee for the second line parade, and our first familiar face in Wendell Pierce doesn't even turn up for several minutes. We don't get an explanation for what a Mardi Gras Indian is, but instead just see Clarke Peters strutting down an empty street in that amazing yellow feathered costume, looking like a cross between an Indian, an alien and a crazy person. You just go with the music, or you don't.
"That'll work." -Kermit
As I watched the "Treme" pilot, I had enough faith in Simon and company to know that I'd figure things out eventually, and now having seen three episodes, my faith has been rewarded. And because "Treme" is, so far, much more driven by character than plot than "The Wire" was, I had a much stronger sense of the main characters by the end of the pilot than I did about anyone but McNulty by the end of the first "Wire."
It helps that we start off with a somewhat more famous cast this time around. You see, for instance, John Goodman's Creighton going all Walter Sobchek on the British camera crew and you have many of the fine points of that character. (Ultimately, Creighton turns out to be much more refined and sane than Walter; he's just excitable.) And if chatty, hipper-than-thou Davis isn't exactly like other roles Steve Zahn has played, it's in the ballpark enough that all Simon and Overmyer have to do is establish the degree of his quirks. (For instance, that he'll rail against the Tower Records employees about the definition of "consignment," but will largely wimp out on trying to engage Elvis Costello in conversation.)
Clarke Peters played my favorite character on "The Wire," and he quickly establishes Albert as one of the ones to watch closely here. There's that great moment where Albert enters his ruined home and with a few small gestures (a catch of the breath, a change in his eyes), Peters shows you just how much it wrecks him to see that. But then he steps outside, his jaw sets, and he becomes this immovable object - a big chief who isn't going to let his daughter, his son or anyone else stand in the way of his plan to clean out the bar, reassemble his old tribe, and start rehearsing for Carnival. It's a calling he takes so seriously that he won't even let himself break character when his neighbor agrees to haul the junk away from the bar, only allowing himself a little goofy victory dance after the street is completely empty.
We spend a lot of time in the pilot just watching musicians performing their craft. In the same way that "The Wire" would occasionally step back and just let us witness the cops perform their jobs at a high level, the long musical interludes are already revealing things about the characters: that Antoine, for instance, is so desperate for money that he'll perform in a parade he's clearly not in shape for.
We get to meet couples in varying states of their relationship: Creighton and Melissa Leo's Toni as a contented veteran pair who turn out to be a better match than they first seem (as Toni's just as capable of blowing up as her husband), Antoine and Khandi Alexander's Ladonna as exes who haven't lost their old chemistry, and Davis and Kim Dickens' Janette as two people going through the motions because she hasn't found a good enough excuse to kick him to the curb. (And by the end of the pilot, he provides her with one by opening that expensive bottle of wine at a restaurant that can't afford that kind of financial waste.)
And through it all, we see both the heartache and joy of post-Katrina New Orleans. Homes are destroyed, lives are lost or uncertain (like Ladonna's missing brother Daymo), yet there's great music and food and companionship and local pride. There are gigs to hustle for, consignment CDs to be reclaimed, victory dances to do, and money to be played for. It's a place where even the funerals eventually turn into celebrations with dancing and music, and one I look forward to spending a lot of time visiting this season.
Some other thoughts:
• As a lot of you know, a week and a half before the premiere, "Treme" co-executive producer David Mills died unexpectedly after suffering a brain aneurysm on the set. Give his love of music in general and funk in particular, I'm pleased that Davis's old band, whose CDs were being held on consignment by Tower, was named Uncut Funk, which was a fanzine David and his friends used to publish about George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. (You can hear the music of the real Davis here, by the way.)
• Elvis Costello (who generated my biggest laugh of the pilot with his reaction to Davis's attempt to claim that he taught Kermit Ruffins anything) was one of the first famous musicians to come back to the city after the storm, where he began work on his "River in Reverse" album with Allen Toussaint. And Kermit himself is a local fixture whom Mills once described as "the de facto goodwill ambassador of New Orleans... except he rarely travels to ambassadorize."
• When Creighton declines the lemon ice (out of loyalty to another restaurant that has yet to re-open), the desert that Janette offers to fix for him is a Hubig's fried pie. In his open letter to the city of New Orleans in today's Times-Picayune, Simon cops to the fact that the Hubig's factory didn't reopen for several months after the time period depicted in this episode.
• And speaking of the Times-Picayune, if you like this show, you really owe it to yourself to check out some or all of Dave Walker's exhaustive coverage of the show.
• We don't get an explanation here for Davis's issues with his gay neighbors, but note that he assaults them with the music of New Orleans native Mystikal.
• I found it a nice touch that Toni carries around three giant purses all the time, which is a reminder not only that she has no office to go to because of the flood, but also suggests a character who's always over-extending herself.
• I know it's been 10 years and many films since Rob Brown made his movie debut in "Finding Forrester," but when I saw him as Delmond tearing it up at the Blue Note, I was overcome with the urge to yell out, "You're the man now, dawg!" in a Scottish accent.
What did everybody else think?