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HBO’s ‘Treme’ shows New Orleans keeping head above water 

‘The Wire’s’ David Simon pushes play on the Big Easy

The rollicking title song for HBO's new series "Treme," premiering Sun., April 11 at 10 p.m., celebrates "jumpin' and havin' fun," while the credits flash over walls spotted with stylized flood damage. Good times may not be the first thing you'd expect from a drama about New Orleans' slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Nor is "fun" exactly synonymous with the work of "Treme" co-creator David Simon. His TV masterpiece "The Wire" used a unifying plot about Baltimore police contending with drug lords for a vast meditation on the decline of civic institutions, from law enforcement to labor unions to the press, all as a mirror for our national decline.

Where "The Wire" showed a city in the midst of a slow-motion collapse, "Treme" finds post-Katrina New Orleans at the bottom, trying to get back up. While the new show shares "The Wire's" expansive, unsparing vision of urban life, Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer emphasize restoration and reunion with an angle that's sunnier, if ever so slightly.

The Crescent City's native music connects many of the characters, such as Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a cash-strapped trombonist who's forever haggling with cab drivers. Former musician Davis McAlary (crazy-eyed Steve Zahn) works as a disc jockey and, in one scene, rants about how his radio station boss programs clichéd songs from "the fucking New Orleans fucking canon!" In general, musicians come across about as roguish and unreliable as "The Wire's" self-destructive detective Jimmy McNulty.

Artists such as Kermit Ruffins and, in cameo, Elvis Costello, play themselves. Jam sessions frequently occur, whether in cave-like nightclubs or on the corners of Bourbon Street. Occasionally, the musicians' dialogue contains so much slang and insider's jargon that it's like some kind of code. But as on "The Wire," the speakers' relationships and intentions remain utterly clear and frequently full of humor. "Treme" isn't above indulging in New Orleans stereotypes, however, and the 80-minute pilot includes one of those stately, dignified jazz funerals. While the show's impeccable musical taste finds room for bebop, blues, funk and no doubt much more, one hopes "Treme" won't rely too much on, say, a stirring trumpet solo to do the drama's heavy lifting.

Subplots address the deaths, disappearances and diaspora of Southern Louisianans across America due to the storm. Characters who commute from distant cities wonder whether they should abandon home for their new lives outside disaster areas. A bartender (Khandi Alexander) hires a crusading lawyer (Melissa Leo of "Homicide: Life on the Street") to find her brother, who vanished during the hurricane. A sorrowful carpenter and chief of some Mardi Gras Indians (Clarke Peters) tries to get his tribe back together. As an activist college professor, John Goodman fulminates that "the flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe!" and generally sounds like a mouthpiece for Simon's political ideas.

"Deadwood's" Kim Dickens plays a struggling chef, and the overall vibe of hedonistic hangouts evokes Poppy Z. Brite's restaurant-based Liquor novels and the brilliant but canceled series "Frank's Place." Ritual plays a recurring role on the program, from simple communal drinks to the occasional voodoo rite. The pilot presents an unforgettable image when an iconic carnival figure emerges from a darkened street. First we simply see a constellation of glittering sequins, and then a figure appears like a pagan deity, festooned with enough orange flowers for a Las Vegas chorus line.

Simon specialized in slow build ups throughout "The Wire," so it may be that "Treme's" loose, rambling early episodes will gradually weave the narrative strands together for a more narrowly focused storyline. Without the momentum provided by "The Wire's" investigations, or the more soap-operatic twists of HBO shows such as "Six Feet Under" and "Big Love," "Treme" may have trouble enticing viewers to tune in every week.

With such rich local color and loveable characters, however, "Treme" casts a charm that almost equals the mystique of New Orleans itself. Plus, "Treme" speaks to more than the city's own recovery efforts. It represents the challenges of all Americans struggling to adjust to a massive economic slump. After the market crash, we're all New Orleanians now.

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