Throughout its first two seasons, Treme seemed to suffer from a split-personality disorder. Half the time it was a relaxed “hangout” show, bar-hopping throughout New Orleans and rubbing elbows with the musicians, cooks, Mardi Gras Indians, and hangers-on just trying to make their way through day-to-day life after Katrina. The rest of the time it was a much angrier, often more strident series about the failure of institutions to respond properly to disaster befalling a culturally unique American city. As a viewer, trying to reconcile these two halves into a coherent whole was often frustrating, particularly since several of the major characters were abrasive, if not downright unlikable.
In its third season, however, Treme has become so adept at blending character-based drama with its overarching themes that it forces those who’ve tried to fit the series into some other, perhaps Wire-shaped, box to accept it on its own terms. There’s a defiance to both the characters and the series itself, summed up in the song, “Is That All You Got?,” recorded by violinist-turned-rocker Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) and her new band. Treme isn’t going to bow to expectations, but the series seems determined to prove it’s something special in its own right.
The season opener, “Knock with Me - Rock with Me,” begins 25 months after Katrina. Writer David Simon, with a story assist from Anthony Bourdain, wastes no time in getting up to speed on the lives of the plethora of characters, and the script is perhaps a tad over-expository as it nudges us into recalling where they all left off. Chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), who spent the second season exiled in New York, appears to be inching closer to a hometown return. The over-ambitious and under-talented DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is forging ahead with his plans to assemble an R&B opera about the Katrina disaster, while his girlfriend, Annie (Lucia Micarelli), pursues her own musical ambitions by teaming up with an Austin mover and shaker. Annie’s ex, Sonny (Michiel Huisman), an almost despicable character in the first season, is slowly piecing his life back together, working on a Vietnamese shrimp boat by day and returning to music (and romancing his boss’s daughter) by night.
The second season’s new additions are still around too, as David Morse’s Lt. Terry Colson struggles with trying to be “good police” in a depressingly corrupt homicide department, while outsider Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) tries to show he can still “sell a sandbox to Saddam” by sniffing around the long and short cons surrounding the federal relief money flowing into New Orleans. And as the season progresses, Treme salts a few new characters (such as Chris Coy’s investigative reporter) and famous faces (the sixth episode features a doozy of a cameo from one of rock n’ roll’s founding fathers) into the mix.
The series shares The Wire’s gift for finding new purpose for previously undervalued characters, such as Phyllis Montana LeBlanc’s Desiree, who proves to be more than just the nagging girlfriend and conscience of wayward trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce). But the heart and soul of the series remains the two characters who most embody its obstinate “won’t bow, don’t know how” attitude: Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) and bar owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander). It feels both right and inevitable when these two form a bond that blossoms throughout the season.
And of course, there’s the music—and there’s still lots and lots of it. The soundtrack is a bottomless bouillabaisse of jazz, blues, funk, R&B, and rock. Some of it is great, much of it very good, and, let’s be honest, some of isn’t very good at all. But that’s as it should be, because it wouldn’t be a David Simon show if no one ever struck a false note. This is a warts-and-all series about street-level people trying to stay true to themselves and their community while incrementally improving their lots in life. With its countless laudable performances and its meticulous tapestry of a community, Treme is the closest television comes to a weekly version of a Robert Altman film. (The season climaxes with a particularly Altmanesque concert sequence bringing much of the far-flung cast together.)
Treme is never going to be The Wire: New Orleans, and it will never draw a Boardwalk Empire-sized audience, but by now, it’s comfortable enough in its own skin to tone down the self-righteous, preachy streak that marred its earlier seasons. Many will still watch and wonder, “Is that all you got?” But those who get down in the groove with Treme’s own unique rhythms may be surprised to find it’s got more than enough.