Anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the television masterpiece that was “The Wire” knows you don’t rush David Simon. The man takes his time.
Like “The Wire,” Simon’s latest HBO endeavor, “Treme,” unfolds with novelistic leisure. The drama series, which follows an array of intriguing citizens as they rebuild their lives in post-Katrina New Orleans, launches Sunday with a rambling (some might say tedious) 80-minute episode that is clearly more concerned with establishing mood and tone than providing instant payoffs.
It’s as if Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer are urging us to really get to know this exotic locale — its people, its eccentric customs and amazing music — to settle in and stay awhile.
Those patient viewers who do stay will be richly rewarded with a humanist story that gains traction as it goes — a vivid and intimate character piece meant to be savored like a spicy gumbo.
“Treme,” named for the New Orleans neighborhood where jazz was born, begins three months after the levees broke. More than half of New Orleans’ residents have high-tailed it out of there. Many who stuck around are struggling to find their footing, and sense of purpose, in a deeply wounded city.
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce of “The Wire”) is a sly, street-wise trombone player just scraping by and looking for any gig he can get, including funeral processions for his former neighbors. His ex-wife, LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), runs a tavern damaged by Katrina’s hellacious winds. But she’s also concerned over the whereabouts of her younger brother, who hasn’t been seen since the storm hit.
The large ensemble also includes a Mardi Gras Indian (“Wire” veteran Clark Peters), a chef struggling to keep her restaurant afloat (Kim Dickens), a nerdish idealistic radio disc jockey (Steve Zahn), a civil-rights attorney (Melissa Leo) and her husband (John Goodman), a caustic college professor who has become an outspoken critic of the bureaucratic inertia that has left local residents feeling abused and betrayed. Marvelous performances all around bring these engaging characters to life.
Unlike “The Wire,” which trained much of its attention — and its anger — on government institutions, “Treme” is not overtly political. Instead, it homes in on these ordinary, downtrodden citizens while exploring how their lives have been altered by the catastrophe. Along the way, it celebrates their abiding resiliency and their prideful resolve to hold onto their culture and traditions.
Much of that culture, of course, is rooted in music, so it’s no fluke that “Treme” arrives with a great beat to it. Cameos of actual homegrown musicians are sprinkled throughout, and the show simply explodes with the exhilarating power and force of artistic expression. Unless you’ve got a thing against jazz and R&B, you won’t be able to prevent your feet from tapping.
These infectious musical interludes work to ease some of the palpable sorrow roiling through “Treme.” They are also testament to the remarkable sense of place Simon brings to all his projects. A former journalist, Simon has a nose for detail and a relentless drive to get the story “right.”
As a result, “Treme,” probably more than any piece of cinematic fiction set in New Orleans, feels like an authentic experience. As you watch it — and slowly savor it — you can practically taste the red beans and rice.
10 p.m. EDT Sunday