Treme: Better than The Wire?

Last night the first episode of David Simon’s follow-up to his Baltimore epic premiered on HBO in America. So how does Treme measure up? Sarah Hughes delivers the verdict

Few writers are as good at creating a wholly believable, fully fleshed out world as economically and with as few concessions to the casual television viewer as David Simon. The creator of The Wire and Generation Kill is an expert at throwing viewers in at the deep end, both linguistically and in terms of plot, and then asking them not just to pay attention but also to keep up.

That desire to keep viewers on their toes hasn't changed with his latest show, the much-anticipated Treme, set in New Orleans in the raw early months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. From the moment John Boutte's soulful "Treme Song" starts playing and the stark phrase "Three Months After" appears, the viewer is thrust into the predominantly working-class neighbourhood of Treme and the complicated, conflicted characters who inhabit it.

There's Antoine Batiste, the trombone player with a roving eye and a shortage of ready cash; his ex-wife LaDonna, who's trying to find her brother, who has been missing since the storm hit. There's Albert Lambreaux, contractor and Mardi Gras chief who hopes only to rebuild his home and his son Delmond, a young musician intent on moving on and away from New Orleans. And there's Davis McAlary, the boy from the right side of the tracks who thinks he knows everything about Treme and its music, and his sometime girlfriend, Janette Desautel, a chef who just wants her new venture to survive.

This being a David Simon drama there are no obvious heroes – and even those with the best intentions find that good deeds come with a healthy dollop of moral ambiguity. Whether it is Steve Zahn's McAlary, equal parts privileged know-it-all and honest supporter of the city's culture, or Clarke Peters' Lambreaux, a man of few words but occasionally violent actions, no one in Treme is as straight-forward as they seem.

Even John Goodman's furious college professor, who could come across as little more than a mouthpiece for Simon's polemic, telling an ill-informed British reporter that "the flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions, and decades in the making", gains in stature when you learn that he is based on New Orleans blogger Ashley Morris, whose refusal to go away in the post-Katrina days gave the devastated city a much-needed voice.

That said, those expecting The Wire Part 2 will be disappointed. Where that show aimed to show us how one city, Baltimore, failed and was failed by everyone from politicians to schoolteachers, from the cops who policed the city to the journalists who covered it, Treme has an altogether softer heart.

For rather than a condemnation of a city left to rot from within, Treme is a celebration of a city that, despite everything, survived. Simon and co-creator, Eric Overmyer, clearly love the music of New Orleans and their joy in that music spills over into scene after scene, transforming what could be seen as clichés (a second line parade, aka a "jazz funeral without a corpse", during which a band sways and plays through the city streets) into scenes filled with a reinvigorating sense of joy.

There are some great cameos too – Elvis Costello pops up with Allen Toussaint (with whom he recorded the post-Katrina record The River in Reverse) and Dr John puts in an appearance alongside local music heroes Kermit Ruffins and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. And alongside those impeccably researched musical scenes, which establish Treme's credentials, come the crucial touches that give the show its soul.

Whether it's Lambreaux donning his Mardi Gras finery and dancing sombrely in the dark, or the look in LaDonna's eyes when she realises that Antoine, for all his easy charm, has failed her (and crucially her children) once again, Treme is a show which is at its best in its smallest moments, those half-hidden glimpses of the reality of its characters' daily lives.

Critical response to the show in the US has largely been positive. The Washington Post called it "nearly flawless... a textbook example of how to launch an ensemble saga"; The New Yorker hailed it as "the bravest show David Simon has ever made" and Salon's Heather Havrilesky concluded that it was so "intimate [a] portrait of this strange, soulful American city that watching it makes you feel as if you're there." But not everyone is completely convinced. There are those who have questioned whether Simon and Overmyer, as relative outsiders (Overmyer owns a second home there, while Simon is a regular visitor to the city), can truly tackle the subject, and, more importantly, whether they should.

Chief among those voices is the novelist Poppy Z Brite, whose impassioned posts post-Katrina served as a rallying call. Brite, who lives in Central City, one of the poorest areas of New Orleans, has been outspoken in her criticisms of Treme, calling the crew "rude, intrusive assholes" and comparing them to "the fashion photographers in Ray Bradbury's Sun and Shadow who invade a poor Mexican town to glom onto the 'picturesque poverty'."

And it's true that there is something uncomfortable about the notion of a television crew recreating New Orleans post-Katrina at a time when the wounds remain raw. Simon has gone some way to addressing that criticism by hiring Tom Piazza, author of the 2005 book Why New Orleans Matters and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist at New Orleans' local paper The Times-Picayune and the co-director of the documentary film Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans as writers. He's also cast a number of locals in key parts – most notably Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, whose anger and wit made her the most memorable interviewee in Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, and who gleefully steels her scenes as Antoine's girlfriend, Desiree.

For all this, Simon remains sanguine about the show's chances, saying recently, "If we fuck up it's our fault, not New Orleans' fault. New Orleans has done nothing other than to deserve a well-made television drama about it."

He and his crew have largely succeeded in that aim. Yes, Treme is a more meandering affair than The Wire but it is also a more intimate, character-driven drama than that show, and more powerfully emotional, too.

For from the first moment, when Wendell Pierce's Antoine Batiste shows us his true feelings not through a traditional character-establishing monologue but via a trombone solo, by turns wistful and celebratory, wild and restrained, you know that, most of the time anyway, this show aims for and hits the right notes.

City slickers: What Baltimore's finest did next

Wendell Pierce:

The sardonic Bunk Moreland from 'The Wire', a native of New Orleans, takes one of the leading roles in 'Treme' as trombonist Antoine Batiste.

Clarke Peters:

The former Lester Freamon joins Pierce in 'Treme', playing Mardi Gras chief, Albert Lambreaux.

Dominic West:

Since his days as roguish detective Jimmy McNulty ended, West has starred in the West End and taken a very different television role as a particularly sullen Oliver Cromwell in 'The Devil's Whore'.

Sonja Sohn:

After playing the conflicted Kima Greggs in 'The Wire', Sohn has stayed in television, taking roles in 'Brothers & Sisters' and 'The Good Wife'.

Michael K Williams:

After a recurring role in 'Law & Order', Williams, aka the scene-stealing Omar Little, will take an equally eye-catching role in HBO's big autumn drama, Martin Scorsese's 'Boardwalk Empire'.

Idris Elba:

Elba followed up his time as the smooth-talking Stringer Bell with a number of films, including 'American Gangster' and 'Obsessed', and will next be seen as the lead in the BBC's six-part thriller 'Luther'. He has also launched a hip-hop career as Big Driis.

Tristan Wilds:

His portrayal of stoic teen Michael won him rave reviews. Wilds was subsequently snapped up for the glossy remake of teen drama '90210'.

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act