Treme : A Complex, Enthralling New Drama

Even fans of The Wire, who come to David Simon's Treme predisposed to love it simply because it's a Simon effort, may find themselves suffering from a sense of anticlimax after watching the first episode.

But hang in there. Come back for the second episode -- and the third. And the rest. Because Treme, which debuts Sunday night on HBO, is slow in the build but big in the pay-off.

Like a well-cooked meal, it reveals its pleasures gradually -- not all in the first bite. This isn't a hot dog -- it's a gumbo, with layers of flavor to surprise, delight and move you.

I'll try to skip the food metaphors from here on but they are appropriate. Because, at heart, though it is a story of people in New Orleans trying to get on with their lives after an unimaginable disaster, this is ultimately a show about savoring the finer things in life: food, company and, above all, music.

The music of New Orleans is a character all its own in Treme, whose title (pronounced tree-MAY) refers to a neighborhood of that city -- supposedly the oldest African-American neighborhood in America -- that has been home to musicians for generations. The character of music is never seen but is still ever-present; it is all-encompassing but ephemeral and hard to pin down. At various times, it is referred to as though it might walk through the door -- or regarded as a terminal patient, in danger of perishing in the same way the city of New Orleans faces the same jeopardy.

Treme is less focused on cause-and-effect than The Wire, which was a grand, sprawling, Dostoyevskian story. A look at the failure of institutions, The Wire intertwined tales from the numerous social strata of the city of Baltimore in the Bush era. Treme, however, isn't about plot; it's about character.

It focuses on a few specific characters' lives, though each of them bring the viewer in touch with another cross-section of the city.