There is a lot to enjoy and admire about “Treme,” the exciting new series by David Simon and Eric Obermyer (“The Wire”), which debuted on HBO last Sunday night and already has been renewed for a second season. It features great performances by its accomplished cast. The New Orleans neighborhood of Treme “three months after” provides a compelling backdrop against which to tell a story and also a virtually unparalleled opportunity to examine American society, human nature, and New Orleans.

As viewers, too, we are in expert hands; as with “The Wire,” this series promises to take hold more fully once the initial few episodes lay out the basics, introduce the wide array of characters and set up the rhythm. And of course there is the music, which is galvanizing from the start. Kermit Ruffins and Louis Prima, along with the Rebirth and Treme Brass Bands, made it hard to sit through the first episode—literally.  There’s an irresistible desire to get up and dance.

For viewers like me, who grew up in the metropolitan New Orleans area, the show has extra resonance. It’s a treasure trove of local references: “Shorty,” the musician who didn’t make the Second Line parade that opens the series, is Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, a big star in New Orleans. He also happened to play at my sister Robyn’s rehearsal dinner when he was a high school sophomore, a special guest artist with the Jonathan Batiste Trio. Jon, another rising star these days, was my mother’s piano student at the time.

Musician Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) thanks his ex-wife LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), for fixing him red beans and rice when “it isn’t even Monday.” When I was in school, red beans and rice was always served as lunch on Mondays. But the tradition dates back to long before then, when Sunday’s ham was thrown into the pot and cooked with beans to eat on laundry day.  Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker points out in her review of the show that, just as in “The Wire,” the creators don’t always explain the references.  For example, local DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), hearing music coming down the streets, says that the second line parade “sounds like Rebirth.” At first Franklin thought he meant it sounded like a rebirth (and that works, symbolically), then realized he was referring to the Rebirth Brass Band, whose members are featured in the episode.  (For more local references, see Dave Walker’s article in The Times Picayune.

In general, these details are etched with loving accuracy, to the point that viewers may mistake verisimilitude for truth. David Simon wrote a piece in the Times Picayune justifying one deviation: When her restaurant runs out of a customer’s favorite desserts, Jeannette Desautel (Kim Dickerson) serves local English professor Creighton Burnette (John Goodman) her own Hubig’s pie. Trouble is, the scene was set before the Hubig’s factory was up and running again. It was a “magic Hubig,” Simon explained, just one of the many examples in which the creators exercise their artistic license. And though Simon may have seemed paranoid, some people probably did notice. New Orleans takes its food extremely seriously. It’s also is a city full of civic pride, especially after what it has gone through these past five years, and the people care a lot about how its story gets told.

Precisely because of this, New Orleanians are apt to forgive “Treme” its minor lapses. There’s a lot that “Treme” gets right about New Orleans.  With only one episode under its belt, it already has begun to lay out the complex social networks in the city and the ways in which New Orleans feels like a small town, a village bonded by love of food, music, parties, and the Saints—bonds that transcend racial lines more than in any other place I have ever been. Which is not to say there is no racism in New Orleans, just that it sometimes plays out differently than in other places I’ve lived. Is it odd that Desautel knows her customers by name, or that when attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) walks into a restaurant, she immediately spots some familiar faces?  In New Orleans, I seldom go anywhere with my parents or friends that they don’t run into at least a few people they know. Is it odd that so many people know in advance about the Second Line parade which starts the show? Not really. Once, a musician at Preservation Hall told me about a jazz funeral before he even asked my name.

There’s another reason that the Second Line was such big news: it was the first jazz funeral since before the storm. I was home in early October 2005 when the first jazz funeral, for legendary New Orleans chef Austin Leslie, actually occurred. I still remember reading the Times-Picayune article about it, still remember how I felt. Much like McAlary in “Treme,” I thought, “They’re doing it,” with a sense that it was an important, triumphant step forward. Every reopening, every resident’s return was a victory back in those days just “after,” but the return of great traditions such as jazz funerals and Second Line parades were that much more memorable.

The show also captures some of the feeling of life in the months after the storm. I still remember the way people listed who was back, who was not. Who could not be accounted for. The question “How’s your house?” which the characters ask in “Treme,” was common, though I more often heard it phrased as, “How’d you make out?” It’s also worth mentioning that characters such as Desautel, Batiste-Williams, and Bernette are typical of the strong women who contributed tremendously to the recovery effort and still play vital roles in the resurgence.

“The Wire” examined the failure of a panoply of institutions—from the police to the government to the public schools—to care for the people of Baltimore, and showed the dire consequences that failure can have, particularly among the disenfranchised. “Treme” promises to do the same.  Significantly, and with perhaps even greater force than in “The Wire,” it promises to show the resilience of the human, and in particular, the New Orleanian spirit. Perhaps the most perfect metaphor for that is the Second Line, and the first episode of “Treme” utilizes it perfectly.  The Second Line parade that opens the show is a party; the one that ends it is more somber, a dirge.  They could have switched the order and the message would have been the same. A Second Line, nowadays, can be a party or parade; I’ve danced the Second Line at weddings and at Irma Thomas’s now defunct club, The Lion’s Den. Traditionally, though, the Second Line follows a jazz funeral—attendants wave white handkerchiefs or twirl umbrellas and dance to the brass band that marches in the procession. There is mourning over the death but celebration over the life that was lived and Life to come. New Orleans, more than any other place I know, understands that balance. It enables the city and its people to face the aftermath of Katrina with determination, humor, and, yes, some celebration.

Beth Herstein is a writer and attorney in New York. She grew up in the metropolitan New Orleans area and still considers it home.

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Beth Herstein is a writer and attorney in New York. She grew up in the metropolitan New Orleans area and still considers it home.

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  • Robin April 16, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    This was a beautiful and brilliant piece. Excellent job!

    The Zappo’s chips on the counter at the Burnetts’ house made me want some so bad.

  • Linda April 16, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    The pie story is funny – if I were from there and knew that fact, that would have driven me crazy. But… Simon once said the same thing about the show Homicide that the article you linked to says about Treme, but much more concisely:

    I have to say, it was fictional. We did make some stuff up. I checked my WGA card and on the back it says I’m allowed to do that.

    (from here: )