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Treme: Do You Know What It Means?

The anticipation for HBO's Treme is high among that certain sliver of TV viewers who worship at the altar of David Simon and consider his epic, five-season The Wire to be the best series ever made. (Consider me one of the faithful.) Yes, he also oversaw Generation Kill, but that one felt a little different because it was a miniseries. Treme is Simon's first ongoing dramatic series since Wire ended in 2008, and from the first episode, it's got the potential to be another sweeping look at the struggles of a community that's been left behind by the rest of the world.

Sunday's series premiere, "Do You Know What It Means," had the feeling of a prologue, as the major characters were slowly assembled and the plot lines that will run for the next nine weeks are revealed. The episode opens with simple title cards reading "New Orleans, Louisiana" and "Three Months After." There's no need to say after what; since 2005, New Orleans has been synonymous with Hurricane Katrina and all its attendant death, destruction, and displacement. Shot on location, the series is able to capture the muck and grit that still stain much of the city, and the first episode is all about digging through the dirt to find life again.

The roster of characters is broad, but they've all got one thing in common: There's not enough money to go around. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is a jazz trombonist perpetually down to his last dollar, always hustling gigs to try and scrape together cash for bills or groceries. Davis (Steve Zahn), a local DJ, spends the episode trying to stick it to the man while staying on the good side of Janette (Kim Dickens), a chef and Davis' friend with benefits. Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) is mad as hell and not gonna take it any more, and his wife, lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), is on a mission to find what happened to David, the brother of Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), who was last seen with fellow prisoners on a bridge before the floods hit. Oh yeah, Ladonna is also Antoine's ex-wife.

It looks a hell of a lot more confusing than it actually is, and that's because at this point Simon and crew are old hat at juggling multiple story lines and cutting in and out with just enough rhythm to keep things moving. The most compelling character of the night, though, was Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), who left with his daughter for Houston after the storm but has returned to try and put his life back together. He finds his house soaked and in ruins, and decides to hole up at the deserted Poke's Bar with nothing but his stand-up bass, small suitcase of clothes, and a Mardi Gras Indian Chief costume that's a glorious relic of the life he used to have. He doesn't get much further in the first episode than cleaning out the bar and persuading an old friend to come around and play some music, but it's a start, and that's plenty for now.

Simon and Overmyer's script for the episode is filled with the Shakespearean beats and street argot Simon put to such good use on The Wire, and the dialogue is written with an ear for ornate vernacular that adds to the feeling of only slightly heightened reality. Much of the episode is crafted with stunning verisimilitude, most notably the way that the only music heard comes from musicians or car stereos. It's a smart choice that enhances the realism but also drives home a point that Davis makes when he refuses to promote his radio station's pledge drive CD of "classic" New Orleans hits: Namely, Treme isn't going to be about the New Orleans you think you know. And I, for one, can't wait to see what that looks like.

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