New Orleans on the Small Screen Saturday, Apr 23 2011 

It was about two years ago that I found out that David Simon was producing an HBO series on New Orleans. I had become a fan of his way back when he helped create the landmark “Homicide: Life on the Streets” back in 1993. And we were at the University of Maryland at the same time which has to count for something. So, I had over a year to wait for the finished product and even spent a few hours in between watching a couple of scenes being filmed during one of my visits to New Orleans.

I was not disappointed by the result, but I realize that I am a small slice of an already modest audience. And admittedly, Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer were asking a lot of those early viewers. They took people to parts of the city where few would willingly visit. At the same time, main characters were musicians, chefs, working class people, again, a part of the city they might encounter in passing. The show took on the rhythm and sensibilities of the city, both of which are foreign to most Americans. Likewise, characters on the show used phrases and words and even actions that required a glossary or subtitles.

The show eschewed narrative and focused on “getting New Orleans right.” Most natives I’ve talked to appreciated both the effort and the show, but many viewers turned away. And when they did, they missed a beautifully drawn, if glacially-paced story that all came together in the last episode. It all crescendoed in one of the best eighty minutes of television in 2010.

I’d invite new viewers and old to give it another run. The first year was probably hampered by some political correctness on the part of the production team, but it also mirrored the uncertainly and aimlessness of those first few months after the storm. No one knew what to do or where things were going. They were just glad to be back. To cook that first pot of beans in their kitchen. Dance to their first second line. Catch their first strand of beads.

And if the second year mirrors the second year after Katrina, it will be a lot different. The news stories went from “happy to be back” to the grim realities of life in New Orleans. Most of these challenges were there before Katrina and the struggle to recover exacerbated them. So, this year the story line will continue to deal with the preservation of a great city and its culture, but it will also deal with rising crime, drugs, corruption, and forced gentrification. And I suspect that as characters face senseless murders, unmet mental health needs, and the fact that America has lost interest in their struggle, viewers will be drawn to their plight.

The second season of Treme premiers at 10pm, Sunday night on HBO. Here is the teaser for the new season.

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Treme Thursday, Jan 7 2010 

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…

We’ll see how this plays out. Is New Orleans just too different for the television screen or will “Treme” rise to the level of the growing buzz. Regardless, it’ll be an interesting ride.