There's this funny sequence in the second episode of "Treme", (HBO, 10 p.m tonight): Three young tourists in post-Katrina New Orleans get sent to a bar in a dicey neighborhood to hear music and experience the authentic nature of the city. There they encounter good music, good cue and a bony man with too many gold teeth and a ready grin.
I won't give away what happens, but elements of their experience are akin to how "Treme" made me feel in only three episodes: immersed, giddy, and longing for more.
Longing is one of the emotions at the core of the show. Created by David Simon, the man behind "The Wire," one of the TV best shows ever, "Treme" offers up New Orleans after the levees burst, a city where people long to return home, long to return to normalcy. It's a city of pathos and humor, of tradition and secrecy, of anger, simmering and boiling over, of hardworking folks and odd balls, all held together by music, lots and lots of great music.
Among the characters are Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a trombonist living hand to mouth, picking up work playing in funeral processions and, with shame, on Bourbon Street. He's got a new baby and a no-nonsense girlfriend (Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, a native of the city first seen in Spike Lee's great doc '"When the Levees Broke."). His ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) owns a bar and splits her time between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where her husband and sons live. Her younger brother has been missing since the storm. Helping her to find him is civil rights attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), who's married to Creighton, a professor and critic of the government's response to Katrina. Steve Zhan (very funny) plays Davis, a goofball 'musician' passionate about his city and its art; his sometime date is Janette (Kim Dickens), a chef trying to hang on to her small restaurant. Two musicians Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman) carve out a life as street musicians. And finally, there's Albert Lambreaux (the incredibly regal Clarke Peters) a Mardi Gras Indian chief who stubbornly tries to rebuild not just his home but his tribe. His trumpet playing son Delmond (Rob Brown) just wants to get back to New York where he believes his work gets more respect.
Much is explored through these characters, the big issues of race and class, of course, but more specifically, the day to day of what was lost, what that loss wrought and what it takes to survive such a loss. In that sense, "Treme" is a testament to the spirit of the people of this city who know, in a way only they can, that what they've created is irreplaceable.
Tonight's episode is mostly character establishing, and that includes the city's character. If you've never been to New Orleans, consider it an immersion experience. The episode is dense with images and details about familiar markers of the city, but you'll probably pick up a few things you didn't know. And it's funny too.
It's too early to say that "Treme" is as good as "The Wire" but I can say that "The Wire" is one of the few TV shows that I still miss, that pops up in my mind at odd moments, whose images haunt me.
Already, there are moments like that in "Treme."