People say that there's no place on Earth quite like New Orleans, and if you watched the atmospheric, city-centric first season of Treme, which followed the start of 2005's post-Katrina recovery, you probably believe it. Even if you somehow resisted David Simon and Eric Overmyer's bewitchingly accurate portrayal of the soulful, struggling city, you'd at least be hard-pressed to say that there was another show on Earth quite like Treme. Bucking even the more loosely plot-driven trends of HBO dramas like Deadwood, Rome, and The Sopranos, season one of Treme provided just enough forward momentum to satisfy nervous executives while it spent entire episodes watching Mardi Gras, marching with second lines, idling with buskers on street corners and airports, and lounging in jazz bars.
Yes, there was talk of politics, corruption, and crime, and more than a few devastatingly dramatic moments (a funeral for a long-lost brother and the sudden suicide of an outspoken professor among them), but it was the quieter slice-of-life stuff that drove Treme: a guerilla chef and her boyfriend's attempt to show her a perfect New Orleans day (flirting with the city as much as with her), a Mardi Gras Indian parade (in which the cops arrive, looking for trouble, but stand down instead), and a trombone player's night on the town with a star-struck Japanese tourist (aimless in that good, Lost in Translation way).
Though familiarity has washed away a little of that magic (the show does have a habit of repeating itself, much in the same way regular people tend to fall into routines), Treme's second season is still an eye-opening, character-bursting work of TV art. Like The Wire, it now expands its scope from the natives, local businesses, and musicians to uptown politics. Old regulars like the hustling trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) find themselves sucked into efforts to rebuild local schools, while new characters like the greedy Nelson Hildago (Jon Seda) demonstrate the corruption of FEMA contracting. There are big payoffs for supporting characters: Now a series regular, Terry Colson (David Morse) gives a nuanced insider's perspective of the police department, and Sofia (India Ennenga), whose father killed himself last season, provides the street-level view of a teenager overflowing with rebellion and resentment. In fact, Treme's scope has grown so large that two of its returning characters, determined chef Janette (Kim Dickens) and professional trumpeter Delmond (Rob Brown), begin the season in New York City, which allows the writers to distinguish between their view of a place that's a city and a place that's a way of life.
Is there too much going on here? Not really. Even with its dazzlingly large cast, each episode is as easy to follow as Boardwalk Empire, and it's both more colorful and surprising. One quickly grows invested with the characters personal, though universal, struggles: the concern a mother, Toni (Melissa Leo), has for her daughter, Sofia, or the steely attempts of a grieving woman, Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), to remain professional in the wake of her brother's death and mother's relocation to Baton Rouge. In turn, this leads us to be far more invested in their daily lives: Toni's a public lawyer, helping citizens to uncover the truth behind Katrina-related deaths, and Ladonna tries to make ends meet at her bar by potentially bringing in live music. Treme succeeds so well at provoking empathy for its characters that it's all the more upsetting when the city's rising crime threatens to rip them further apart.
But Treme isn't relentlessly bleak: The show is as much a celebration of New Orleans's spirit as it is a depiction of the struggle to keep that spirit afloat, which accounts for the budding romance between the laidback lifelong resident (and ex-ex-DJ) Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) and the free-spirited and wildly talented fiddler Annie (Lucia Micarelli), to say nothing of the redemption it offers Annie's ex, Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who—after police intervention—may finally be able to kick his drug habit and focus on his music.
It's hard to say where Treme will go, but that's mainly because the show recognizes that the destination isn't really the important part. The focus remains on the day-to-day journey, and the show is blessed with writers who recognize the importance of authenticity (Anthony Bourdain is now a contributing writer, presumably to the scenes dealing with cuisine) and a marvelously talented cast that ranges from Oscar winners like Melissa Leo to tried-and-true character actors like Alexander, Morse, and Clarke Peters, to say nothing of the musicians on the show, who—being actual New Orleans musicians—are about as authentic as it gets. Treme gives you the best, then, of dramas and documentaries: a moving snapshot of a city, and its flesh-and-blood people, in transition.