"Treme," HBO's psalm to New Orleans, opens with a ragtag brass band gathering for the first street parade since 2005's Hurricane Katrina, twirling fedoras, feathers and umbrellas in tribute to the recently deceased. But long after the celebration is over, the music plays on.
The 10-part series may be in the gritty tradition of co-creator David Simon's other celebrated works -- most notably "The Wire" -- but it is more of a suite, floating along on a steady, sweet stream of musicians melting tourists' hearts with Louis Armstrong ballads, little girls learning "Tipitina" on the piano, Mardi Gras Indians whooping it up to drumbeats, rebel disc jockeys blasting rap through the windows, rich jazz backing up cheap strippers and old-time rock filtering from a secondhand radio in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant.
Yes, there's some action -- a lawyer searches for an inmate missing since the storm; a Crescent City regular nearly beats a disrespectful thief to death -- but anyone searching for by-the-numbers drama doesn't fully appreciate Simon's gifts -- nor the allure of New Orleans.
I long ago gave up on having any sort of itinerary when visiting the magical city, allowing myself to give in to the free-form, laid-back rhythms of music drifting out the doors of Vaughan's Lounge or the sinful aroma of red beans and rice bubbling on a porch.
Anyone who can't go with the flow can order from the children's menu (aka "Desperate Housewives"). The rest of us can take a lazy journey that's as pleasurable and captivating as anything on TV.
Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer clearly cherish the city -- but this is no whitewash. What made New Orleans a national treasure also made it ripe for natural disaster. Almost all the players in this sprawling tale are dreamers, more interested in popping open a can of beer and blasting their Dr. John albums than committing to respectable relationships and practical jobs. Long afternoons at the corner bar do not inspire reconstruction.
The standout characters include Antoine Batiste ("Wire" veteran and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce), an easy-going trombonist who never met a beignet he didn't like. He's dedicated to playing "classy" jazz, but more than willing to cheat on his girlfriend and ignore his children.
Minnesotan Steve Zahn provides the series' other most riveting role, a disc jockey who lives for the moment and the music -- he foolishly orders a bottle of wine well out of his price range, then attempts to pay for it with an obscure collection of Dave Bartholomew tunes.
Adding to the jam-packed jambalaya of performances are John Goodman as a college professor who spends more time railing against the federal agency FEMA than teaching students; Oscar nominee Melissa Leo as his good-hearted wife, still cutting through the red tape wrapped around the city; "Deadwood" veteran Kim Dickens as a brilliant chef with an ill-nourished budget and former "CSI: Miami" investigator Khandi Alexander, struggling to keep the family bar stocked up.
Simon and Overmyer paint all their figures with sympathy, with one glaring exception. Tourists -- the folks whom New Orleans has always relied upon to pay the bills -- are presented as gawkers, fools and bumpkins only there to stumble down Bourbon Street or snap pictures of the Fourth Ward, where Katrina did the most damage.
Yes, the city always has had its share of annoying out-of-towners, but in my dozen or so trips to this cultural holy land, most of those I have met are eager to celebrate and soak in the culture. Some may be naive, but they're not heartless. Simon should remember that he, too, is a visitor, and that he's not the only one who wants to dance in the second line.
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