TV: Treme (Season 2)

Treme is one of the best shows on television. With the third season firing up later this month, I finally caught up on season two, and it holds up nicely to the brilliant first year.

Treme is a celebration of the city of New Orleans: its culture, its traditions, its music, its food. It’s also, like its cousin The Wire, a sustained critique of systems underlying the American way of life. Through the lens of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, season one was a rich and satisfying exploration of a place and its people, all of them struggling to locate what they’ve lost in the wake of the storm.

Season two continues their journeys, further exploring the repercussions of Katrina, but the theme this season is more squarely focused on building and rebuilding. The show’s roster of well developed, fully realized characters are moving from grief to acceptance, working hard to move on. Much of the building revolves around music, of course. Tired of living hand to mouth as a session player, Antoine (Wendell Pierce) works to organize his own soul-funk review, while Davis (Steve Zahn) hybridizes funk, rap, hip-hop, and brass into a New Orleans supergroup. Meanwhile, Annie (Lucia Micarelli) continues to build her reputation, trying to take the next step from player to composer.

But for others, the building is more personal. Toni (Melissa Leo) and her daughter Sonia (India Ennenga) rebuild their relationship and understanding in the wake of tragic loss, Sonny (Michiel Huisman) rebuilds his sense of health and well being by trying to kick drugs, and LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) has to rebuild her very sense of self after a series a devastating traumas. The same is true for New Orleans expats like Janette (Kim Dickens), who tries to rebuild her passion for cooking in some of the toughest kitchens in New York City, and Delmond (Rob Brown), who’s connection with New Orleans leads his music in new directions, and rekindles his relationship with his angry father Albert (Clarke Peters).

As in the stylistically similar The Wire, Treme adds new milieus in its second season, and there are new characters through which to view the city. Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a Texas wheeler-dealer, arrives to make a buck in the construction industry that’s rebuilding the city, while stern police lieutenant Terry Colson (David Morse) gives us a glimpse of the internal struggles of the NOPD.

It’s difficult to summarize a season of Treme, because it strives so hard to be like life: it’s about journeys, and change, and most importantly moments. It’s the moments that keep me watching, the little glimmers of recognition and inspiration and connection that the characters experience in the course of a season. I can’t imagine this is a show that hooks channel-surfers; over the course of a season, it is extremely patient to build its story arcs, the ultimate slow burn. A one-minute scene in an episode might not pay off until several episodes later, when the jigsaw piece falls into place. But those little “aha” moments can just be beautiful, and more than enough to sustain you through the undercurrents of sadness that flow beneath sporadic bursts of heroic, almost defiant joy.

Season two doesn’t quite have the structural finesse of the first season — in which the central mystery of LaDonna’s missing brother ties everything together thematically — but it continues to explore the world beautifully and memorably.¬†Even moreso than in the first year, this one is owned by the musicians: the storylines for Annie, Antoine, Davis, and Delmond really shine through as they work to build creative careers, something that should resonate for anyone who’s pursued a life in art. I love this show; really looking forward to season three.

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