“America needs it some Kermit,” the New Orleans DJ and sometime musician played by Steve Zahn says, about halfway through the first episode of HBO’s “Treme,” which debuts tonight on the heels of much critical praise.
Davis McAlary (Zahn), inspired by real-life scenester Davis Rogan, is talking to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, his bandmates and friends after a show at Vaughan’s, a tiny, shotgun-style bar in the Bywater, where Ruffins has a long-standing Thursday night gig. In the scene, Davis is lamenting Ruffins’ failure to at least say hello to Elvis Costello, who’s in town for a recording collaboration with pianist-songwriter Allen Toussaint.
Ruffins and Costello play themselves, as does Vaughan’s, where Ruffins plays and cooks barbecue for his listeners.
That authenticity, in a show created and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”), with help from the late David Mills and novelist George Pelecanos, as well as New Orleans writers Lolis Elie and Tom Piazza, has everything to do with why fans of New Orleans music and culture — including native New Orleanians, I hope — will be enthused by “Treme.”
Why? Because Mills and Co. got it right: the broken-down, hardscrabble hand-to-mouth feel of New Orleans, in the months and years immediately following Hurricane Katrina; the unique cultural milieu, as defined in part by the city’s cuisine and Mardi Gras Indian traditions; the brass-band scene.
As is true about New Orleans, music is soaked into the fiber of “Treme,” as demonstrated by:
- That aforementioned scene at Vaughan’s, where Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play “Skokian”
- A native New Orleanian trumpet player makes it big in New York, with a scene shot at the Blue Note – Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, anyone?
- Rebirth Brass Band plays “Feel Like Funking It Up” and the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”
- Treme Brass Band plays “A Closer Walk With Thee” during a post-funeral parade
- McAlary sits at a piano for a few bars of Professor Longhair‘s “Big Chief.”
- McAlary goes to WWOZ-FM for his weekly show, and rails about being forced to play “the New Orleans canon,” although it’s apparent he loves every bit of it – he goes gaga over a Dave Bartholomew box set, and he blasts NOLA hip-hop just to annoy his genteel, classical-loving neighbors.
The storyline largely centers on the ups and downs of trombonist Antoine Batiste (New Orleans native Wendell Pierce) and McAlary, as well as secondary characters including a professor (John Goodman) raging at the federal government’s decades-long failure to bolster the levees; his wife (Melissa Leo), an attorney fighting for the rights of the dispossessed; a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) who returns to his devastated home, and hopes to reunite his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame; a bar owner, Antoine’s ex-wife (Khandi Alexander), mourning her brother, apparently lost in the storm; and a chef (Kim Dickens) desperately trying to rebuild business for her popular neighborhood restaurant.
As might be expected from Simon, the various strands of the larger narrative — NOLA’s return from the brink of disaster — are smartly woven together in the first episode, directed by Agnieszka Holland. The characters are compelling, as are their stories.
Which brings us back to Kermit. Yes, America needs Kermit and his joyful, good-time music, rooted in New Orleans traditional jazz.
And America needs “Treme,” a show that serves as a necessary reminder of all the reasons — music, food, culture, a group of survivors who won’t quit — that New Orleans still deserves to be celebrated as one of our country’s great treasures. It’s “a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” according to something Goodman’s characters says.
Ultimately, “Treme,” which will run 10 episodes for its first season, wants to figure into the continuing rebirth of New Orleans, to play a role in furthering that economic and spiritual renaissance.
It’s off to a great start.