NEW YORK (AP) â€” The name of David Mills kept coming up in a conversation last week about "Treme," HBO's zesty drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans, premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT.
It's no wonder he was on the minds of "Treme" co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer as they talked about the new show. Only two days earlier, Mills â€” their longtime comrade, an acclaimed writer and the co-executive producer of "Treme" â€” had died unexpectedly, at 48, while filming the series in New Orleans.
The 10-episode first season has almost wrapped, said Simon, but already he was thinking of seasons that might lie ahead, and already missing Mills.
"There will be things that we do not think of, things that we do not achieve, because he's not there," Simon said. "We're not going to find a David Mills again."
"He was a one-off," Overmyer agreed.
The mood wasn't maudlin or bitter. In some ways, it reflected the hearty defiance of "Treme" (a city neighborhood pronounced truh-MAY'), whose wide range of everyday folk are dealing with incalculable losses, and won't submit.
"Treme" is the latest project from Simon, hailed for HBO's "Generation Kill," ''The Corner" and, perhaps most notably, "The Wire." But even sharing their novelistic density and ensemble makeup, "Treme" varies from those other splendid series with its sense of hope and its rich accessibility.
"Treme" is an immersive experience for the audience. Fitting.
"New Orleans culture is participatory," Overmyer said. "You jump into the parade when it comes by. We're hoping the show is the same way â€” that you'll just jump in and go for the ride now, sort it out later."
"And wake up 40 blocks from where you thought you were going," Simon cracked.
"Treme" begins in fall 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina and the preventable engineering failure that caused flooding in some 80 percent of the city, leaving destruction, death and thousands displaced.
And yet, from the first moments of "Treme," the music is playing. (Musicians â€” both local and globally famous â€” play their way into the narrative. Elvis Costello and Dr. John are among those seen and heard early on.) Good food is on the table: A neighborhood restaurant has reopened. Displaced residents are trying to come home and rebuild, despite the institutions that continue to betray them.
Among the panoply of characters are trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, "The Wire"), Janette Desautel, the owner-chef of the resurgent restaurant (played by Kim Dickens, "Deadwood"), and Tulane professor Creighton Burnette (John Goodman), a high-decibel critic of the institutions' response to the disaster.
"In some ways, the show begins warmly," Simon said. "But there are moments where these people have to address the reality of living in New Orleans. There's a lot of glorious magic, but there's a lot that's (screwed) up."
Long before Katrina, the magic had bewitched frequent visitor Simon as well as part-time resident Overmyer (whose credits include "The Wire" and, before that, NBC's groundbreaking "Homicide: Life on the Street").
Overmyer: "We just had this impulse to do something in New Orleans."
Simon: "But we could not figure out how the pitch meeting could possibly work."
Overmyer: "Or even what the show was, really."
Katrina and its aftermath offered a cruelly convenient hook for drama, of course. But there was more for them to hash out.
Other "Treme" collaborators and New Orleans outsiders included George Pelecanos ("The Wire" and "The Pacific") and Mills ("The Corner," ''Homicide," ''NYPD Blue," ''ER" and "The Wire"). They called for more than a homage to the city.
"We needed them," said Simon, who, despite his image as the singular auteur of the shows that bear his celebrated name, insists that "television is a communal act," especially in the writers room. "We needed them to come in and assert for a story."
Overmyer, laughing fondly, said, "I can remember David asking, 'But what is it ABOUT?' He'd say, 'If it weren't in New Orleans, what would it be about?'"
Simon: "And we'd say, 'But it IS in New Orleans.' Which would drive him crazy."
Overmyer: "But he was right! And he had to lead us by the nose to the realization that, while we can say an awful lot about New Orleans, we must first have a story about people in a situation that is both interesting and says something about the human condition."
Maybe that sums up "Treme": the power of a group of individuals unbowed by either nature or bureaucracies.
"What brought New Orleans back after the storm was not a political endeavor, or economic will, or the practical application of any policy," Simon said. "What asserted for New Orleans in a way that nothing else did was the culture, and it did it in 10,000 individual acts of insistence: one St. Joseph's Night at a time, one crawfish etouffee at a time. The culture would not die because people couldn't figure out how to live without it."
In its first season, "Treme" will carry on past Mardi Gras 2006 to St. Joseph's Night, an Italian-American holiday a few weeks later.
Next season would cover the same ground a year later, continuing to stay true to the city's post-Katrina history.
"And if this thing gets to season five," predicted Simon with proud certainty, "the Saints are winning the Super Bowl."
HBO is owned by Time Warner.
On the Net:
EDITOR'S NOTE â€” Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org