The title of the HBO series Treme looks like a shortening of extreme, and in many ways it is. The force of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was extreme. The failure of the U.S. federal government and its agencies to protect New Orleans by maintaining the floodgates, canal walls and pumps was extreme. The devastation was extreme.
But Treme: The Complete First Season (2010), out this week on DVD and Blu-ray, officially refers to a mid-city New Orleans neighbourhood named after plantation owner Claude Tremé and pronounced treh-MAY. "Down in the Tremé," John Boutté sings in the title song, "Just me and my baby/ We're all going crazy...."
The show starts three years after Katrina. Residents have lost friends and loved ones. "Hey, how's your home?" asks one. "Oh, don't ask me about my [expletive]home," replies another. Some are making a go of running restaurants. Some are returning from Baton Rouge and Houston, which sheltered the dispossessed. The question of whether New Orleans will rise again is asked often in these 10 episodes (the first runs 80 minutes, the others an hour each).
Creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who worked together on the series Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, tossed around the idea for a show long before Katrina. They wanted to celebrate the cultural gumbo of New Orleans, but couldn't find a way into the story. The hurricane "gave us a way to frame it," Overmyer says with knowing understatement.
They filmed on location, using a blend of actors, non-acting locals and New Orleans institutions such as the Rebirth Brass Band. That band leads a hey-baby-we're-back parade in the opening episode, which introduces the main characters. Trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce of The Wire) is trying to make a living from the few gigs on offer, while his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) runs a bar. Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is a radio disc jockey who manages to be both a slacker and aggressively annoying.
Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) has returned on a mission - a fool's errand, everyone else says - to reform the coterie of men with whom he performed in elaborate costumes each year at Mardi Gras. Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) is an attorney married to Creighton (John Goodman, a long-time resident of New Orleans), who is impatiently trying to persuade the world that New Orleans needs help.
While the other characters banter, play music and work to repair relationships and buildings, it's Creighton who gets the lion's share of exposition. What people crave now, he tells restaurant owner Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), is "good food, companionship, community." Katrina "was a natural disaster," he informs a British interviewer. "The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made disaster." He proceeds to explain why until, after the interviewer unwisely knocks the city's culture, food and general worth, Creighton tosses the microphone into the canal.
The DVD offers audio commentaries and making-of segments about the city and the music. The Blu-ray offers much of that material as a picture-in-picture option.