Rooted in Real Life, ‘Treme’ Helps Illuminate It

Wendell Pierce in Treme (HBO)

Wendell Pierce in Treme (HBO)


NEW YORK – No television drama exists in a vacuum. Many of the best draw freely from unscripted, unruly real life.

That’s certainly the case with “Treme,” HBO’s glorious series set in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Right now, especially, it would be hard for the creators of “Treme” to shut their eyes to the real-life drama bearing down on the city. It’s just outside the window of their production office in the Lower Garden District and, what is more alarming, upriver, where the Army Corps of Engineers has opened the Morganza spillway, flooding rural areas in an attempt to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the swollen Mississippi.

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A flood and its aftermath is what “Treme” is about, though no one would call it a disaster drama. Instead, it focuses on a wide swath of locals and their stubborn insistence on returning to normal life, which is to say, to the distinctive, sassy good life of New Orleans that has always outlived one disaster after another.

“It has always been a city where calamity and death are intertwined with the city’s vibrancy in a very strange way,” said “Treme” co-creator David Simon a few days ago. In the hands of Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer, this raw truth has nourished a piquantly authentic tale as “Treme” unfolds in its second season (airing Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT).

Of course, “Treme” is far from alone at coining real life into fiction.

For two decades, “Law & Order” and its offshoots mastered ripped-from-the-headlines weekly topicality.

In a remarkable, even unprecedented feat, NBC’s “The West Wing” wrote, produced and aired an episode that confronted questions and fears raised by the events of 9/11 a mere three weeks after those tragic events.

And for seven seasons (concluding this summer), Denis Leary’s haunted New York City firefighter has tried to make sense of 9/11 on the FX drama “Rescue Me.”

Mexico’s bloody narcotics trafficking culture seeped into TV drama a couple of years ago on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Its cancer-stricken New Mexico chemistry teacher, who cooked crystal meth to leave his family financially secure, was risking the wrath of the Mexican drug cartels by invading their turf.

Meanwhile, Showtime’s dark comedy “Weeds” shifted from homegrown American drug stories when it transplanted its marijuana-dealing mom closer to the California-Mexican border. She became involved in cross-border drug deals and in a relationship with the corrupt mayor of Tijuana, Mexico.

The FX legal thriller “Damages” last season found its high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes mounting a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the victims of financier Louis Tobin, a fictional twist on Bernie Madoff.

And for five seasons, “Treme’s” Simon and Overmyer drilled into current-day politics, public schools, law enforcement and journalism as they mined the many urban crises afflicting Baltimore in their celebrated HBO drama series, “The Wire.”

Then, last spring, they returned to HBO with “Treme.” But while their feet were again firmly planted in reality, they had taken on a new challenge as they reached beyond to the make-believe: They were telling a story set not in the emergent current day, but in the fixed-in-place recent past.

“‘The Wire’ existed in a fictional present, so you could respond a little more directly to whatever the headlines were,” said Overmyer. Respond, that is, or anticipate: “Often, I felt like, in some weird way, we were ahead of the curve. We would do it, and THEN it would be in the paper.”

They don’t have that creative leeway now.

“Treme” began its first season set in fall 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina, and continued through Mardi Gras 2006.

This season, the series covers roughly the same ground, a year later.

“We’re really following the history of post-Katrina New Orleans, and using it as a metaphor for what’s happened to urban America,” said Simon. “We feel a responsibility to not cheat at narrative too much, and that limits us in some ways.”

But even as they stay historically faithful in their storytelling, they explore ways to let the present inform their depiction of the past.

“You pay attention to everything that’s happening now, and use what seems to be indicative of a true theme,” Simon explained, “using it as you credibly can in the year that you’re depicting.

He offered an example: “None of our characters can know in 2006 that the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl in 2010. But you can understand how much the Saints meant to the city in 2006. So, this season, we’re hitting the Saints at points in the narrative to underline what they mean to the average New Orleanian.”

The show will also foreshadow the 2010 BP oil spill in its upcoming season finale — “though not,” Simon cautions, “in a way that presupposes knowledge by the characters of what’s to come.”

Alert members of the audience might already have caught a reference to that oil spill voiced unwittingly by characters in episode three, as they were forced to haul debris to the city’s only operating dump — one the city had closed and sealed with a clay cap a decade earlier.

Tell me dumping more garbage here isn’t going to screw up the environment, said Robinette (Davi Jay), though in more colorful language.

“Fools making it up as they go along,” agreed Albert (Clarke Peters), wearily slamming the officials in charge. Unstated but implied by the writers of that scene: Were the officials operating the Deepwater Horizon rig any better?

As Simon and Overmyer spoke a few days ago, production of this season’s “Treme” was almost done (it wraps May 25), while the fate of New Orleans remained in doubt as it faced its latest threat.

Everybody on the show “is feeling a little anxious,” Overmyer said.

And how will the show respond if the city were to suffer significant damage?

“When we get ready to do season 3, if we know that New Orleans flooded because of engineering issues that are ongoing, we’re probably going to hit that harder than we would’ve otherwise,” said Simon.

For now, they’re hoping they won’t have to.

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