Filmmakers long have found New Orleans to be a ripe and inviting place for movie settings. The same cannot be said for television. To most Americans, the city is a “mystery wrapped in an enigma.” It provides a backdrop that is too distant, too weird for “main street” viewers. Then there is the problem of “getting it right.”
A great example of the former was “Frank’s Place,” a “dramady” that aired on CBS during the 1987-89 seasons. Critics and folks from New Orleans loved it for its textured verisimilitude, but it failed to draw rating numbers high enough to sustain it. A good example of the second is “K-Ville,” Fox’s post-Katrina cop show. It displayed some understanding of the setting, but appeared challenged by local dialects and even geography. And its audience and lead actors quietly disappeared.
The problem with putting New Orleans’ foibles and eccentricities on the small screen may be solved in April, when HBO is scheduled to premier David Simon’s new drama, “Treme.” Named for the African-American neighborhood to the north of the French Quarter, it will focus on the culture of New Orleans, with Katrina increasingly in the rear view mirror. And while a show about the food and the idiosyncratic music scene of a small, distant American city might be a stretch, I think it could work.
First of all, producer David Simon, the former police beat reporter from Baltimore, created shows like “Homicide” and “The Wire,” both gritty, raw, and hyperealistic. Plus it is on HBO, where such a series can find a niche audience. He has hired a great stable of actors, including Steve Zahn, New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, Melissa Leo (who received an Oscar nomination for her work in last year’s “Frozen River”), and John Goodman, who just signed on this week. He’s also using writers and consultants from New Orleans itself, which should produce a credible product. In fact, Simon hired local trumpet player Kermit Ruffins as a consultant and ended up making him a character in the show…playing himself. And I think Kermit promises to be a star beyond the clubs of the Crescent City…