If you need an introduction to David Simon, then this article will be useless to you, and you need to address your cultural illiteracy by arranging an enviable first screening of The Wire, his Baltimore epic. If you do not need an introduction to David Simon, then you do not need an article to tell you what a pleasure it is to watch Treme (HBO, Sundays at 10 p.m.), the new New Orleans-set drama, created by Simon and Eric Overmyer, that exhibits the potential to emerge, like The Wire, as a rich and complicated portrait of the urban South. If you do not think that Baltimore is in the South, then think again, hon. If you are familiar with Simon’s work and do not admire it, then you have my condolences.
Point is, viewers settling in for the first installment of Treme will be giddy with high hopes, lit with curiosity, and greedy for stimulation. They would be tuning in regardless of any reviewer’s recitation of its particulars, unless a review indicated that Treme included footage of the viewer’s own dog being put down or of her mother hooking up.
This state of affairs presents Simon with the most desirable of high challenges. Artists who have demonstrated greatness must address great expectations. How do you follow your own act of creating a work acknowledged a major contribution to American art? It helps to make a big entrance, and Sunday’s episode is a brassy blast of that. Before the opening credits have rolled, the audience has been struck by interior shots suggesting the dark density of The Godfather and caught by verbal rhythms of hustlers and hagglers, rhythms that slap in the ear more kindly than those of David Mamet and surpass them in lending humanity to all participants in the American hustle.
After titles indicating that we are in New Orleans three months after Katrina, the show begins with a very tight shot of a thin flat wooden object (an odd pipe? a popsicle stick?) in a male mouth, the skin around its goatee a high yellow, leaving open the question of the subject’s race. You, the veteran Wire viewer, appreciated Simon’s subtlety in exploring racial tensions and tribal ties, and when you watch the episode a second time, which you should, you recognize this opening image as an announcement that this latest exploration will have a feel for ambiguity and complication.
The next shot, also very tight, is of sunlit saxophone testing its honk. You realize that the wood thing was a reed and that the show is setting itself a worthy test in terms of revealing its world—making the viewers aware that it trusts their intelligence enough to keep them always a step behind. Here come more shots of instruments and more sounds getting tuned to life as a band makes ready to march the streets. That’s a nice curtain-raising touch, an announcement of the show’s consciousness that it is warming and heating up, kind of like the pre-concert rustle at the beginning of Sgt. Pepper’s.
When the camera starts getting a bit more distance on its subjects, we can see pleasure jumping in the musicians and random signs of blight junking up the background. Here and later, the show promises that its point of view is at once social-realistic and optimistic, buoyant and bluesy: Life is cruel, and let’s get on with it, and people need release.
We see a reveler drinking from a cup of brown liquor for just a fraction of an instant longer than seems healthy. This turns out to forecast some subtly strong swigs down the road, including a pothead DJ holding a beer as if forcing down medicine and a chef who pulls on a bottle of cooking wine then checks to see how much she has left to spare. Tilting to a soft surrealism, we witness a parade that features some fabulous costumes with piercing yellow feathers. Later, the depressed owner of one of these pulls it out of a suitcase with a caress as if he’s handling a rare baby bird, and we see that ecstasy and agony are going to get all tangled up.
This is the prelude to a story about music and community courting comparison to Robert Altman’s Nashville. It has the same looseness and kaleidoscopic focus. It has a similar tolerance for contradictions and a commitment to getting the big picture by concentrating on the small details. The rock star who, playing himself, shows up at a jazz club functions much like Julie Christie and Elliott Gould do in the Altman movie, as mirrors where the audience catches the reflection of the central characters’ feelings on fame. And, most tellingly, an early moment in Treme finds a naive British reporter poking at the setting. But where Altman’s viewpoint shares something with the Brit interloper’s, Simon sides forcefully with the home team, tacitly expressing more than a little sympathy for the steaming conspiracy theorist who tries to toss the journalist over a levee. This is all in all an ambitious way to launch a TV show, and Simon makes it look like a cakewalk.Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.