By David Zurawik
One of the great joys of the HBO's drama "Treme" is watching the way that Wendell Pierce, known to fans of "The Wire" as Detective William "Bunk" Moreland, makes you come to care about his new character, Antoine Batiste, a struggling trombone player trying to make it in post-Katrina New Orleans. Batiste is our point of entry and a guide into the culture of that city.
Pierce's Batiste is featured in a scene in the third episode that some fans of "The Wire" might find a little disorienting. It is a moment, though, that encapsulates the many ways that "Treme" is so vastly different from "The Wire" — as well as some of the deeper ways it is the same.
The action in the scene with Pierce is suddenly and shockingly violent just as "The Wire" sometimes was. And it involves police on the street at night interacting with citizens as they were often did in "The Wire."
But in "Treme," rather than police being characters that viewers know something about, they are faceless brutes. And the guy they are savagely beating is Batiste, a gentle and slightly tipsy musician — played by the same guy who once portrayed a cop himself, a sardonic Baltimore detective given to late night, alcohol-induced philosophizing with his partner Jimmy McNulty.
Out of the great torrent of words that Baltimore writer David Simon has offered up in recent weeks in promoting the series he co-created with Eric Overmyer none are probably more important for ardent fans of "The Wire" to understand as they gather in front of their TV sets for tonight's premiere than these. "It [‘Treme'] is not, in any respect, ‘The Wire: New Orleans.'" Simon said in an HBO interview. "Those expecting a story with a heavy police presence or ruminations on the drug war or a critique of educational policies should return to their ‘Wire' DVDs. We have no interest in telling the same story twice in separate cities. Indeed, even if such a thing were our intent, the notion of beginning this as a crime story would be false and absurd; until the late spring and summer of 2006 – well after the narrative of our first season ends – there was very little crime in New Orleans at all. Most of the crime (and most New Orleanians, in fact) was elsewhere."
Mostly true, but not totally. Let us count some of the ways. How about five ways to be exact (one for each season of "The Wire")?
Leading Characters: In addition to Pierce, Clarke Peters has also made the transition from the squad room of the Baltimore City Police Department to the streets of New Orleans. Here, in an intense and compelling performance as a Mardi Gras Indian chief, Peters' Albert Lambreaux serves as keeper of some of New Orleans' most ancient traditions. Lambreaux is back to try to rebuild his home, neighborhood and continuity with New Orleans' past. There are other great performances from other actors familiar to fans of the Simon oeuvre: Khandi Alexander ("The Corner"), as a bar owner and ex-wife of Batiste, and Melissa Leo ("Homicide: Life on the Street") as a lawyer searching for the brother of the character played by Alexander.
Music: "The Wire" did have its musical moments starting with the title song. Or how about the sing-along at the wake of Ray Cole at Kavanagh's in Baltimore? It is one of the most powerful musical moments I have ever witnessed on TV. But, overall, there is no comparison. As I said in a sneak preview two weeks ago, in 30 years of writing about TV. I have never seen music used as powerfully, organically or eloquently as it is in the pilot of "Treme." From the street parade that opens tonight's episode, to the funeral march that ends it, the music is transcendent. By the way, the viewers will get to hear both Pierce and Peters sing – and they do A-OK.
Tribes: David Simon is the finest anthropologist entertainment television has ever known. Just as he did when he raised his journalistic game to the level of ethnography with the non-fiction books, "Homicide" and "The Corner," so has he used prime-time drama to take viewers into urban American subcultures at a depth no other American TV producer has ever approached. Instead of police, drug dealers, dock workers, city hall, school system and newsroom employees, the tribe explored in-depth the first three episodes here is that of musicians. The series is peppered with real musicians like Elvis Costello and Dr. John. And the ensemble cast includes musicians of all sounds and stripes. Other tribes that viewers get to go backstage with include Mardi Gras Indians and small business owners trying to make in New Orleans.
Locales: The boarded-up houses and collapsed buildings of New Orleans are not that much different than the bleak iconic images of Baltimore in "The Wire." But whereas we were often inside a police precinct station, in the homes and apartments of drug dealers, or on the drug street corners with "The Wire," the action in "Treme" is regularly set in nightclubs, recording studios, rehearsal halls, strip joints and restaurants where music is played. The night club scenes are among the best. But there is still plenty of street.
Language: I had lived in Baltimore for 15 years when "The Wire" debuted, and I still had to record and repeatedly playback large chunks of dialogue to figure out what some characters were saying with all the street and cop shop lingo. There is some of that here, but happily not so much. And what is lost is not so much the result of using a subculture's lexicon, as it is New Orleans dialect. I re-played five times the lines of dialogue uttered by Dr. John in a recording session in episode three, and I still have no idea what he said. But then, I seldom could decipher his lyrics either. And that is again the case with the lyrics in the hard-driving song about Mardi Gras Indians that he sings and plays.
I didn't catch half the words of Dr. John's song, but it reached me at a deeper, more primitive and profound level. "Treme" lives at that level. It speaks to the unconscious. It reaches for our soul.
On TV "Treme" airs at 10 p.m. on Sunday April 11 on HBO.