Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce on trombone) of the Treme Brass… (Photo by Skip Bolen )
In 30 years of writing about television, I have never heard music used as organically, wisely and powerfully as it is in the new HBO drama, "Treme," from Baltimore writer David Simon and playwright Eric Overmyer.
The 80-minute pilot episode opens on a street parade and closes on a funeral procession. The former, with its screaming brass, syncopated bass drum and snake-hipped dancers, lifted me out of my seat and instantly transported me into the bombed-out landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans, where the series is set.
The latter, with its dirgelike, slower-than-the-slowest-rhythm-you-can-imagine version of "A Closer Walk with Thee," touched me in a psychic place that has nothing to do with rational thought, criticism or even words. It drilled deep down into that primitive place in the collective psyche where the origins of dance, religion, death, music and tribalism are found. At least, that's where psychologist Carl Jung said they come from.
Whew. I am not going to try and analyze it for now. Let me offer a confessional moment instead. As the camera pulled up and back for its final overhead shot of the funeral procession passing boarded-up homes alongside a cemetery in deep decay, I just sat there in front of the screen enthralled - oblivious to everything else.
I don't know why. But I do know that I have reacted with such intensity fewer than a dozen or so times in writing about TV: once with "Homicide: Life on the Street;" three times with "The Sopranos;" and at the ends of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" and Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke." (The influence of "When the Levees Broke" on "Treme" is unmistakable, particularly in that final scene.)
I know there are a few other such moments, but that's what I recall off the top of my head. And when you cut through all the lofty critic talk, these are the moments on which I base my belief that TV is capable of great art.
The 10-episode first season of "Treme" doesn't begin until April 11, but think of this as a sneak preview, a snapshot of what's in store for fans of Simon's work. And I won't give anything away here that might diminish anyone's viewing pleasure.
Overmyer, a gifted playwright, is one of the most critically astute and articulate writer-producers working in the medium, and here's some of what he had to say about the series he co-created with Simon.
"Will New Orleans translate?" Overmyer said in an HBO interview. "I wish we could beam the smell of filé gumbo out to the rest of the world, along with the visual imagery and sounds of this amazing place. For me, so far, the most satisfying moments have been when we've captured something authentic - a piece of dialogue, a second-line parade or a funeral or a few bars in a club - and we're able to say, 'Look at that - that's New Orleans, for real."
And those are exactly the two moments that blew me away - the second-line parade at the opening and the funeral march. Maybe I couldn't actually smell the scent of mildew and damp decay in the cemetery and vacant homes, but I sure could feel it in my bones.
Fans of "The Wire" probably need to hear some of what Simon has to say in the interview as well.
"What we know, thematically, is that the depiction of characters and their lives will reflect in some basic ways the history of New Orleans since the storm," says Simon. "It is not an overtly political tract. It is not, in any respect, 'The Wire: New Orleans.' Those expecting a story with a heavy police presence or ruminations on the drug war or a critique of educational policies should return to their 'Wire' DVDs. We have no interest in telling the same story twice in separate cities."
It might not be an "overtly political tract," but it sure feels political to me. The pilot is steeped in angry, profane rhetoric - much of which is directed at the federal government and its various agencies. I couldn't help thinking how Simon taps the very same populist anger and rage being stoked at tea party rallies and on Fox News these days - though from a decidedly different vantage point on the ideological landscape.
But he is dead-on with his larger point when he says, "Thematically, what 'Treme' is interested in is this: New Orleans is a city that still creates. Even in its damaged state, even amid a shocking continuum of national indifference, it remains a city that continues to build things. What it builds - its very product, in fact - is moments. Extraordinary moments in which art and ordinary life intersect."
Listening to Simon makes my head hurt. But who cares what he says? He and Overmyer translated at least two of those moments to television in the pilot for "Treme." That's what matters.
I'm not saying "Treme" is necessarily in a league with "The Sopranos," "The Civil War" or even "Homicide" at its best. But the pilot moved me as those productions did - and in the world of television, that is something special.
"Treme" premieres at 10 p.m. on Sunday, April 11, on HBO.