By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, April 6, 2010 — It’s pronounced treh-may.
That’s how the word “Treme” is pronounced in the theme song that plays during the opening titles for “Treme,” this new HBO series about life in New Orleans a few months after the floods of Hurricane Katrina.
And since this theme song, titled simply “Treme Song,” is sung by a jazz singer from New Orleans, then treh-may must be how this word is pronounced. This singer, John Boutte, should know this because he is a musician and Treme is the name, apparently, of a neighborhood in New Orleans that is known for its music and musicians. On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry for Treme shows an accent mark on the second syllable, so I suppose the pronunciation of this word varies.
One thing is for certain, “Treme” is not pronounced treem, which is how 99 percent of the potential audience for this series has likely been expecting it to be pronounced ever since they began reading about it — you know, like “extreme,” “scheme,” “theme” or even “Krispy Kreme.”
Why bring this up? Because a title whose pronunciation is not readily understood by most people of reasonable intelligence makes you wonder if the producers of this TV series ever considered whether their title would prove to be vexing — and by extension, a tad off-putting — to their show’s potential audience.
I bring it up also because, as a journalist, you try and anticipate what your readers want to know, and I’ll bet many people who have been eagerly awaiting this new series are scratching their heads over its name and too embarrassed to ask any of their peers if they have any idea how it should be pronounced.
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At the very least, now that that’s out of the way, puzzlement over the title does not have to stand in the way of your enjoying the show. For that, “Treme” presents other obstacles, particularly some of its characters, who are among the least likable personalities you’ve ever been taxed to spend time watching on TV.
First and foremost is an indigent musician and public-radio disc jockey named Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn. With his deep knowledge of the musical lore of New Orleans, McAlary is a sneering, snobbish, obnoxious know-it-all, the kind of person who disdains tourists, newcomers, next-door neighbors, or progress of any kind. After watching three episodes provided for preview by HBO, I cannot tell if McAlary has been purposely drawn as an unlikable jerk of world-class proportions, or the creators of this show actually believe they’ve written him to be likably roguish or elfin. Or maybe the character was created just to represent a point-of-view the producers felt their show could not live without. However, living without him would be OK with me.
Another one is an itinerant trombone player named Antoine Batiste (played by Wendell Pierce of “The Wire”). He’s portrayed in “Treme” as an unfaithful womanizer who wanders aimlessly from gig to gig, blowing what little money he has on expensive taxicabs and, in at least one instance, a visit to a prostitute. Here too, you get the feeling the producers might believe Antoine is just a very colorful cat who is emblematic of a certain New Orleans type.
The problem is that Antoine and Davis (and a few others, such as a bloated, pompous English professor played by John Goodman) are such bums and blowhards that you might find yourself thinking: Hey, why should we save New Orleans just for the sake of people like these?
That, of course, is the opposite position that the creators of “Treme” — David Simon and Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”) — want you to take.
As for the rest of “Treme” (which starts this Sunday — April 11 — on HBO), great pains have been taken to give you access to some of the many subgroups and subcultures that comprise this city’s ethnic jambalaya (the various forms of music on display, performed by real New Orleans musicians, are a glorious highlight of this series). Among the tribal groups is a neighborhood clan of Indians led by Clark Peters (also from “The Wire”), who plays one of the better people of New Orleans, and one who doesn’t happen to be asking for handouts. He’s come back to town three months after the hurricane to take his tools in his own hands and rebuild what he lost, with little or no help from anyone.
Anyone who loved “The Wire” can at least expect “Treme” to look great, and it does. It is a polished made-for-TV production, filmed in neighborhoods that still look like Katrina blew through them just last week rather than five years ago. And yet, despite the meticulous quality of its production, its huge cast and its many storylines, not much actually happens.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com