The devastation of Hurricane Katrina clings to New Orleans like a bad Mardi Gras hangover.
The new TV series Treme (April 11, 10 p.m., HBO Canada) takes place soon after Katrina, in late 2005, but the show began location filming last fall - with minimal set decoration required. The shame of New Orleans today, says creator and executive producer David Simon, is that in many parts of the city, the cleanup has yet to begin.
"New Orleans has come back in some small ways, but it has a long way to go before it's the city it was before," said Simon, during the recent TV critics tour in Los Angeles. "Sadly, there are some neighbourhoods where you'd think Katrina really did happen only a few months ago."
Battered but unbowed, New Orleans is the dominant character in Treme (pronounced "Tre-May"). The 10-part drama depicts the city as a sodden mess where waterlogged bodies were still surfacing long after the hurricane passed through. A former newspaper reporter and author, Simon holds the rank of legend in TV circles for his searing social deconstruction of the city of Baltimore, Md., over five seasons of HBO's The Wire, considered by some TV aficionados to be the greatest series of all time. (Among his colleagues on that show was David Mills, who was the head writer on Treme, and who died of a brain aneurysm after collapsing on set late last month.)
Simon's new series delves into the realm of real people affected by force majeure. " The Wire implied what was at stake with the American city," said Simon, who splits residences between the Maryland and Louisiana cities that have been the settings for his two big shows. "But Treme is an examination of what disparate and different people compacted into an urban area can offer, or not offer, particularly in the aftermath of this huge natural disaster."
Co-created by Simon and his Wire collaborator Eric Overmyer, Treme begins three months after Katrina and the subsequent flooding that displaced hundreds of thousands of residents; even the criminal element has left town for the drier locales of Houston and Baton Rouge, La. Those who have stayed behind have been left with a city muddied and in ruins. And the city's normally robust tourist trade has not started to return.
"To us, it was vital to visually capture what New Orleans looked like when the waters finally receded," said Overmyer. "Usually the movies and TV series filmed there show the same locations - Bourbon Street, the Garden District. But those were better times. Three months after Katrina, the entire city was still in shock."
The dramatic tableau of Treme unfolds around Antoine Batiste, played by The Wire's Wendell Pierce, a professional trombonist with no money, but with a deft knack for fleecing others. Antoine's ex-wife, Ladonna ( CSI: Miami's Khandi Alexander) is trying to rebuild her honky-tonk bar and locate her brother David, who went missing during the storm. In the first few episodes, all the show's main characters - like New Orleans itself - are in recovery.
"Antoine and Ladonna are struggling just to get by every day, like everyone else," said Pierce, who was born and raised in New Orleans. "Most of those who stayed behind were proud, decent people forced to deal with one of the greatest disasters in history. Yet, within that disaster, there are moments of great humanity."
There are some neighbourhoods where you'd think Katrina really did happen only a few months ago. David Simon
Treme's cast also includes Steve Zahn as addled radio disc jockey Davis McAlary; and John Goodman as Creighton Bernette, a rage-filled university professor who informs TV reporters that the flooding of New Orleans "was a man-made catastrophe," a federal screw-up "of epic proportions." Creighton's wife, Toni, played by Homicide: Life on the Street's Melissa Leo, is only slightly less vitriolic while pressing authorities to mount a search for Ladonna's brother.
"Naturally, most of the principal characters feel an overwhelming sense of frustration," said Simon. "The saving grace for most of them is the unique culture. To whatever degree the city has recovered, it's not because of the government or money. It's the culture. The culture of New Orleans has gone around the world."
And in New Orleans, culture and music are interchangeable. The series itself is named for a historic neighbourhood situated near the city's more famous French Quarter. As documented by musicologists (and filmmaker Ken Burns), jazz was born on the streets of Treme, created by the slaves of Creole planters who were allowed to chant and drum in a public area known as Congo Square.
"The whole notion of African rhythm and the pentatonic scale meeting European instrumentation and arrangement comes from those 12 square blocks," said Simon.
Music pervades every minute of Treme. The series includes brief guest turns by New Orleans jazz icons Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins and Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews. "You could not possibly make a show in New Orleans and not include these musicians, or their music," said Overmyer. "They're as much a part of the city's rich culture as Mardi Gras or gumbo."
There are no official plans to extend Treme past its first 10 episodes, although it's hard to believe HBO would limit Simon to a single season of storytelling. Although far too shrewd to reveal any long-range story planning, Simon tips his hand slightly by pointing out that a second season of Treme would have to touch upon the return of crime to the flood-ravaged city - many of the criminals came back a year or so after Katrina.
The recovery of New Orleans, of course, is ongoing, and there are many more tales to tell in the Big Easy. "The city itself is a survivor, which opens endless opportunities for storytelling," said Simon. "New Orleans is essential to the American psyche, and yet we all witnessed its near-destruction. It was the closest thing to the destruction of an American city since the San Francisco earthquake, and yet it's still coming back, and on its own terms. …There's no place like it anywhere else on the planet."