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Scott D. Pierce: 'Treme' captures spirit of New Orleans

Published: Thursday, April 8 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Wendell Pierce stars as Antoine Batiste in "Treme."

Skip Bolen, HBO

PASADENA, Calif. — To say that the producers of "Treme" want to do for New Orleans what they did for Baltimore in "The Wire" isn't exactly correct.

But there's some truth to it.

David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the creators and executive producers of the new HBO series "Treme," have once again captured the essence of an American city. But whereas "The Wire" could have been set in many metropolitan cities, "Treme" is singularly about New Orleans.

Specifically, New Orleans three months after the Hurricane Katrina floods in 2005.

"We started with the idea of following the actual history of New Orleans post-Katrina and then constructed our stories based on what we wanted to say about that," Simon said. "It really needs to be a story of something first. And then after that, you start thinking about what characters ought to be in the piece that help you tell that story.

"This is how the city comes back or doesn't — what comes back on what terms. You know, New Orleans is not just the party. There's a lot of dystopia in that city. In some ways, the party and the dystopia may be intrinsically connected. So we thought about all the content, and then we started constructing our world."

"Treme" features the kind of indelible characters we've come to expect from Simon and Overmyer in "Homicide" and "The Wire."

Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is a talented trombonist who'll take whatever work he can get at this point — including playing in funeral processions for his former neighbors. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), his ex-wife, struggles to keep her Central City bar open while her new husband and her children are still in Baton Rouge, where they took refuge from the flood.

She's searching for her missing brother with the aid of local attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo). And Toni's husband, Creighton (John Goodman), an English professor, has become a vocal critic of the recovery efforts.

The cast of characters includes deejay/musician Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), another gadfly; his girlfriend, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), who's struggling to keep her restaurant afloat; and Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a Mardi Gras Indian chief who returns to find his home destroyed and his tribe scattered.

These characters and others try to rebuild their lives as they attempt to rebuild their small part of the city. And "Treme" goes out of its way to capture the feel of post-Katrina New Orleans.

"A lot of movies have been shot in New Orleans, and some television shows have been set there, but we never felt that they got the city right," Overmeyer said. "Or that they showed much of the city beyond the same sort of six locations that everybody seemed to use — Bourbon Street, the streetcars, the Garden District. But we've always been concerned about how to ... convey New Orleans.

"We're hoping that, through the characters and through the characters' stories, that people invest in that, whether they've been in New Orleans or not."

Both Overmyer and Simon have been part-time residents of the city for years. And Simon sees New Orleans as "a triumph of American urban culture."

"It's the best that an American city can be and also the worst in a lot of ways, but it has created a culture that has gone around the world. So this is a city that is essential in the American psyche, and yet we all witnessed the near destruction of it. It was the closest thing to the destruction of an American city since the San Francisco earthquake, and yet it's coming back on its own terms as best as it can. ... And that's a fascinating story to me because, in a way, 'The Wire' implied what was at stake with the American city, but "Treme" is actually an examination of what living as disparate and different people compacted into an urban area can offer and not offer."

PRONUNCIATION GUIDE: The title is pronounced "Truh-may," not "Treem." Although no doubt a lot of people will be saying "Treem."

"Well, they won't be saying it after they watch it," Overmyer insisted.

"Treme is a neighborhood near the French Quarter. It's ... called the Faubourg Tremé, where American music and American culture were born," he said. "And we felt it stood for a state of mind and a part of the city that didn't show up usually in projects about New Orleans. The show is not about that neighborhood, but it's about that musical spirit.

"We talked about putting the accent over the last 'e,' but it seemed sort of fussy. So we figured people would catch up with it sooner or later."

If you watch ...

What: "Treme"

When: Sunday, 11 p.m.

Channel: HBO

Also: The premiere runs approximately 80 minutes; future episodes air in one-hour time slots.

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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