by Erin Z. Bass
Featuring as many as 75 musicians, HBO’s new show from the creators of “The Wire,” called “Treme” after the New Orleans neighborhood, premieres April 11 at 9 p.m. But making the building excitement of the premiere bittersweet is the death of Emmy Award-winning TV writer David Mills, who passed away March 30 in New Orleans. Mills was producing “Treme” along with David Simon and was present a few days before he died at the Tennessee Williams Festival’s “The Making of Treme” panel. Mills sat second from the left inside the Royal Sonesta’s Grand Ballroom, with writer Tom Piazza on his left and David Simon, Co-Creator Eric Overmyer and writer and journalist Lolis Eric Elie to his right.
As described in the festival program, the “Treme” panel will educate the audience about “the challenges this great city presents to the writers and actors on the show, and how it inspires and engages the stories narrated within.” Without giving too much away, the producers and writers did discuss the central plot, a mystery conceived by Elie, who was born in New Orleans and wrote the award-winning documentary “Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.”
“Treme” begins three months after Hurricane Katrina. Antoine Batiste, a family name well known in New Orleans and played by Wendell Pierce, is a jazz musician who’s been flooded out of his Pontchartrain Park neighborhood. There’s also a songwriter, chef said to be modeled after Susan Spicer of Bayona and a public-interest lawyer. John Goodman plays a Tulane University professor. And more than 50 musicians, like Kermit Ruffins and Dr. John, drift in and out of scenes playing themselves.
“In a sense it’s about what it takes to come back and all the different characters have their ways to either succeed or fail,” said Piazza during the panel. “All of the characters have an interest to rebuild.” Piazza, who wrote “Why New Orleans Matters” immediately after Katrina, seems to be having the most fun collaborating with the “Treme” team, and his writing can be found in episode six.
Elie and Piazza are in the same boat as the two locals hired to ensure authenticity in “Treme.” Neither feels like an outsider though, as Simon and Overmyer, who lives in New Orleans, seem to be completely in touch with the city and its nuances. “These guys came here because they’re attracted to the city as is,” said Elie. “My hope is not to change it [the show] at all, but to make it more of what it already is.”
“Many efforts have foundered to depict New Orleans,” said Piazza. “It’s very much a caricature, things that sort of signal New Orleans but don’t embody New Orleans. It [Treme] has the best shot of actually getting that essence of New Orleans.” (We know many of you remember 2007’s “K-Ville,” which was not well received in NOLA.)
Simon and Overmyer explain just how far they went to cater to New Orleanians, maybe too far in some cases. “There’s a lot of lines that only people here will get,” says Simon. And there are also a few product references that will catch New Orleanians’ attention as well. There’s the longneck beer at a local bar that was replaced with an Abita, but locals will know the bar only serves Abita on tap. And there’s the scene with the Hubig’s Pie. After Katrina, the famous fruit-filled pies weren’t available because of damage to the Dauphine Street location, but “Treme”‘s creators decided to give the pie a cameo anyway and now refer to it as the “magic Hubig’s.”
While the show may have to cheat on authenticity sometimes, Simon assures that depictions of the culture will not be shortchanged. “The culture of the city was its own weapon, or argument, in the wake of Katrina and seems to have brought New Orleans back,” he says. “The culture is a force to be reckoned with, so we kind of did a piece on culture.”
But you can’t refer to the culture of New Orleans without talking about music. It’s also a star of “Treme” and was one of the main things the late Mills commented on during the panel. “There is so much musical performance in it, more than any other show and more than I imagined,” he said. “I’m eager to see what the feedback will be.”
For continuous coverage of “Treme” and the premiere countdown, visit nola.com’s section dedicated to the show.