Coupled with last week's Game of Thrones premiere, this weekend's HBO lineup really demonstrates the wide range of programming this premium TV service is capable of providing. On Friday, there's a new special, called Talking Funny, in which four top comics spend an hour sitting around and talking comedy.
On Saturday, there's a new made-for-TV movie, called Cinema Verite, which recreates the making of the landmark 1973 PBS documentary series, An American Family, which essentially marked the birth of reality television.
And on Sunday, there's the second-season premiere of the ambitious, evocative, very musical drama series Treme, about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Three types of programming — and all are done very well indeed.
Talking Funny, the comedy special premiering Friday, is like shows done earlier for other networks by David Steinberg and Paul Provenza. It's nothing more — and nothing less — than comedians talking casually about their art, their senses of humor, their inspirations and their lives. One difference with Talking Funny is that it's done without a studio audience, so the comics are playing to no one but each other. And there's no moderator, just a conversation.
The other difference — the one that makes this special so strong — is the all-star caliber of its four guests, all of whom share the spotlight for the entire entertaining hour. Jerry Seinfeld. Chris Rock. Louis C.K. Ricky Gervais. Need I say more?
Saturday's telemovie, Cinema Verite, is a very interesting animal. It's a dramatic recreation of the filming of what is widely considered television's first reality series: a PBS experiment in which a camera crew filmed the daily lives of California's Bill and Pat Loud — and their children — and turned it into a national TV series. Tim Robbins and Diane Lane play Bill and Pat, whose marital problems eventually are revealed during filming — and Thomas Dekker plays Lance, their openly, proudly gay son, whose appearance on TV in the early 70s was groundbreaking and controversial in and of itself. The filmmaker behind the project, Craig Gilbert, is played by James Gandolfini, distancing himself completely from his iconic HBO role as Tony Soprano.
As dramatized by writer David Seltzer and directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, even this early experiment in reality TV had all the hallmarks and drawbacks of the genre. Its subjects jockeyed for screen time and acted out for the camera. Its producer manipulated results not only by clever editing, but by setting up confrontations while filming. Lane and Robbins, as the often feuding couple, succeed in making you care for their characters, even as they're shown making one poor decision after another. But the most powerful moments in Cinema Verite come near the end, when play-acting gives way to the real thing, and the telemovie includes vintage clips of the real Loud family — being interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show and elsewhere, talking about their time in the TV spotlight. Oh, and don't change channels early. The updates at the very end, filling us in on what happened to the drama's various real-life characters, are well worth the wait.
Finally, there's Sunday's Treme, the second-season return of the show about post-Katrina New Orleans. It's by David Simon and Eric Overmyer from The Wire, so it's not a simple snapshot. In fact, in this new season, which begins 14 months after Katrina, the focus is broader. Janette, the talented cook played by Kim Dickens from Deadwood, is now working for a dictatorial chef in New York — and she's not the only central character who had fled to another city.
But some have stayed, determined to rebuild the city and their own lives. Horn player Antoine Batiste, played with such seeming ease by Wendell Pierce, continues to slide from gig to gig, but has dreams of starting his own band. So does deejay Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn.
And perhaps the most emotional story line as this second season begins is that of Toni Bernette, played by Melissa Leo, who won an Oscar between seasons for her supporting role in The Fighter. In last season's finale, her professor husband, played by John Goodman, committed suicide — but their daughter Sophia still thinks his death by drowning was an accident. The mother knows better, but has other problems to confront — like the concerns of people she represents as a lawyer, trying to make sense of all the red tape, missing records and overworked police force. David Morse, as police lieutenant Terry Colson, represents all three. In one scene, he meets Leo's Toni for a quick meal at a local diner. At first, it's all business. But before long, it becomes personal — with Colson asking Leo's character what Sophia knows about her father's death.
"Things getting any better?" he says. "You talk about it?"
"It was an accident," replies Toni, quietly. "That's what she knows."
I love that scene, in part, because it pairs two of my favorite actors from two of my favorite series: Leo from Homicide: Life on the Street and Morse from St. Elsewhere. But it's also because, as with everyone else in Treme, I believe these characters. I root for them. I worry about them. And boy, do I love the music they play. Tune in, and you will, too. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.