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TELEVISION REVIEW

The soul of a city

Anger, hope, and joy echo through outstanding New Orleans drama ‘Treme’

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 9, 2010

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“It sounds like rebirth,’’ says Davis McAlary, a pot-smoking New Orleans bohemian with an ear cocked to the window.

But three months after Hurricane Katrina, this character in HBO’s marvelous new series “Treme’’ is not referring to the sound of FEMA helicopters or presidential apologies. He’s listening to the brass section of a ragtag parade in the distance, the voice of his city starting to emerge from the damp. For Davis, for the others who were not displaced after the storm, rebirth in New Orleans is about hearing that old, music-drenched, booze-soaked spirit in the streets again, marching on.

Played like a big restless kid by Steve Zahn, Davis is one of the many waiting souls in “Treme,’’ which is from the makers of “The Wire.’’ Named after a New Orleans neighborhood, “Treme’’ is a moody, textured portrait of a community waiting for relief from despair. The show, premiering Sunday at 10 p.m., is fixed in that precise moment when the shock has passed, and the loss remains — that day when your friends go home after the funeral and you need to drag yourself back to life. The drama’s ambience, its sense of rudderless drifting in the wake of the flood, is perfectly gauged melancholy.

There are so many positive things to say about “Treme’’ (pronounced treh-MAY), I hardly know where to begin: with the seamless acting, the outrageously good music, the sensuous cinematography? This is the kind of TV that viewers ask for but rarely get, driven by characters who are more than the sum of one or two qualities and who harbor depths that are revealed slowly, subtly, and authentically. Native son Davis, so shallow and self-consciously kooky at first, takes on new facets with each episode until you can clearly see glimmers of his great integrity. “Treme’’ gives us people who are complicated enough to crave help from the rest of America and yet, ultimately, hate getting it.

Co-executive producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer evoke a world that has the potential to become as far-reaching as the Baltimore of “The Wire.’’ The pair, who also worked together on “Homicide,’’ bring us into many particular corners of New Orleans society: the gloomy barroom run by Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), who is trying to find her missing prisoner brother; the popular reopened local restaurant owned by Janette (Kim Dickens) that’s in financial ruins; the untouched home above the damage where Tulane professor Creighton (John Goodman) gives angry interviews about government ineptitude to NPR.

Two of the more arresting characters in the large ensemble are played by “Wire’’ actors. Wendell Pierce, who was Bunk, is heartbreaking as Antoine, Ladonna’s ex-husband and a trombonist who gigs for cash. He’s grieving for his marriage, he’s grieving for his city, he’s grieving for his once-vital career. He wanders the town carrying his horn — his “bone’’ — like a sweet lost dog, drunkenly singing with a pair of street musicians in one inspired scene. Antoine embodies both the late-night romance of a life steeped in New Orleans music and that life’s early-morning hardships and compromises.

Clarke Peters, who was Lester on “The Wire,’’ plays Albert, a Mardis Gras Indian chief hoping to reunite his tribe. While Antoine tamps down his anger, Albert lets his seep out and, in one stunning scene, burst forth. Since his son and daughter have abandoned New Orleans, Albert is disappointed by the younger generation; he is bent on staying put to rebuild. Peters is a magnetic presence, with his guarded, brooding face and starkly dramatic singing.

The most consistently compelling character in “Treme,’’ though, has to be the music. This is a series about a city defined by its musical culture. The street-corner players, the freewheeling parades and funeral marches, the sweaty bar jams — here they are what will ultimately save New Orleans. Simon and Overmyer include lots of live music, so you can see and feel where the city’s hope and joy live. The guitar-playing is raw and clear in the mix, the horns are bright and ecstatic. Performed by stars including Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, local heroes such as trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, and fictional characters, the soundtrack is inseparable from the story. Meanwhile Davis, a reverential music fan, spends a few comic hours in a bar trying to say a single word to Elvis Costello, who sits watching Ruffins play.

The storytelling style of “Treme’’ is both loose and expertly structured; it’s a gathering of discrete plots that sometimes overlap. The show has both the sense of sprawl and the intimate focus on individual characters that have distinguished Robert Altman films such as “Nashville’’ or “Short Cuts.’’ A few times in each episode, the narrative spell of “Treme’’ is abruptly broken when Simon and Overmyer co-opt a character to make a point about the aid disaster. There’s a difference between a character’s rage and authorial rage — and occasionally, usually during Goodman’s rants about how “the flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe,’’ “Treme’’ sloppily blurs that line.

“The Wire’’ similarly exposed America’s systemic failures, but with a more controlled ironic sensibility. “Treme’’ is an openly emotional piece of work, filled with sorrow, passion, pity, didacticism, and love for New Orleans. Instead of comparing it to one of the most revelatory crime series of all time, hold “Treme’’ up beside almost every other show on TV and listen closely. You’ll hear a sound that moves you.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

TREME Starring: Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Steve Zahn, Melissa Leo

On: HBO

Time: Sunday, 10-11:20