In its own way, the sudden death of Treme co-executive producer David Mills just days before the series premiere is a potent metaphor for the show itself.
The Wire, Treme writer David Mills dies at 48
As the HBO drama's cast and crew mourn Mills' loss, they also celebrate him by continuing to work long days to wrap production on the first season of the show, which follows New Orleans residents as they attempt to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods wrecked the city.
"Even in the wreckage of the flood, it only took a few months for the first second-line parade to be formed," co-creator and executive producer Eric Overmyer tells TVGuide.com. "If you canceled Mardi Gras, it was giving up on the city. It wasn't a question of having a party and being oblivious in the wreckage and the pain. It was a question of celebrating life in spite of all the adversity. That's why we've thought about it a lot with the death of David Mills. That's one of the things the show's about."
Overmyer created the show with David Simon, with whom Overmyer previously worked on Homicide and Simon's magnum opus, The Wire, perhaps the most critically lauded show in decades. Devotees of Simon are burning with anticipation. But this is not The Wire: New Orleans.
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"On The Wire, we had the police chiefs and we had the mayor. We could look at institutions from the inside-out," Overmyer says. "In Treme, what we wanted to do is just take a group of ordinary people and explore the way they encounter the police and city hall when you've got a problem. We've got ordinary people dealing with all that stuff, but from ground level."
Among those ordinary people are a fiery Tulane English professor (John Goodman) and his civil-liberties attorney wife (Melissa Leo), a part-time DJ and jazz aficionado (Steve Zahn) and his part-time girlfriend and chef (Kim Dickens), a Mardi Gras Indian Chief looking to regroup his displaced tribe (Clarke Peters) and a bar owner torn between staying in New Orleans or settling in Baton Rouge (Khandi Alexander).
Music is what anchors the series in New Orleans. The show takes its name (pronounced treh-MAY, by the way) from a neighborhood known for its jazz roots. The show's musical ringleader is trombonist Antoine Battiste (Wire alum Wendell Pierce), who will play any gig he can find because he always seems light on cab fare now that he's moved to the outskirts of town.
"He's the heart of the show — that character, that working musician who struggles from gig to gig and carries New Orleans culture," Overmyer says. "He is underappreciated, is always living hand-to-mouth. He's emblematic. In spite of living hand-to-mouth, he has those moments of joy when making music."
Check out photos of the Treme cast
Simple joy is another thing that sets this show apart from The Wire, whose blistering screed against the establishment was presented in the bleakest of fashions. "The characters are high, low and in between. They'll have their ups and downs, but Treme will never be as bleak as The Wire just because there's music in it," Overmyer says. "The basic meaning of the show is about the human will to reconstitute one's life and one's culture in the face of real adversity. New Orleans, for all its problems, it always had moments of joy."
Alexander says she's seen that truth overwhelmingly while shooting the series in New Orleans. "You can feel an uprising and strengthening," she says. "The people were never defeated — brokenhearted, yes, but never, ever defeated."
But the show also revels in moments of anger, particularly through Goodman's character, who points the finger at the government. Critics of the show accuse Simon and Overmyer of using that character to politicize the show. Overmyer, who's lived in New Orleans for many years, says that's just not true.
"John Goodman's character speaks for most of New Orleans," Overmyer says. "I wrote a lot of that stuff, but I'm just channeling everything I hear from my neighbors and my friends. People talk about the federal flood and the federally induced catastrophe, and as far as New Orleans is concerned, that's fact, not an opinion. If we didn't have that character, people in New Orleans would go, 'You're not telling the truth. Where's the person calling out the Army Corps of Engineers?' John Goodman is not our spokesman; he's New Orleans' spokesman."
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As with any Simon creation, detail is crucial. "We were really determined to try to get it right," Overymyer says. "It's a hard place to get right because it's so peculiar and so its own place. The culture is so deep. David and I always wanted to do a show that would convey some of the magic of New Orleans — the real magic. Not the familiar cliché, but the real heart of the city which is so unbelievably deep and American. We're hoping to do all of that and maybe we'll do a little of that."
And as Simon told TVGuide.com last year, capturing that magic might be the biggest difference of all between Treme and his previous work.
"African-American music is the singular greatest creation of our culture," Simon said. "And it only happened because European instrumentation and musical form met up with African rhythm and pentatonic scale. It could only happen because of the American city. With The Wire, I'm afraid some people thought we were denigrating the idea of the city — that we were saying the city was not only unsaveable, but also not worth saving. It may prove unsaveable, but it's definitely worth saving."
Treme premieres Sunday, April 11 at 10/9c on HBO.