TV: Treme (Season Three)

Season three of Treme is in the books, and it continues to impress, a satisfyingly distinct show about music, food, love, and life in New Orleans. While this year doesn’t have the same easily discernible thematic shape as its predecessors, it’s still a one-of-a-kind show of uncommonly high quality.

Season one dealt with the immediate after-effects of Katrina, while season two examined attempts to rebuild in the wake of that disaster. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the overarching scheme of season three, but in that sense it felt the most like real life. As things in New Orleans slowly get back to a kind of normal, its denizens confront new setbacks, unexpected successes, and challenges arising from both.

On the music front, a number of engaging story-lines dominate: the involvement of Delmond (Rob Brown) with local developers over a jazz museum, the struggles of Antoine (Wendell Pierce) to balance playing ambitions with new responsibilities as a music teacher, and the struggles of Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Davis (Steve Zahn) to sustain their relationship as Annie’s rising stardom and Davis’ latest frustrating project begin to clash. Meanwhile, Janette (Kim Dickens) works to get her fancy new restaurant off the ground, which proves more challenging than expected when corporate politics and the dark side of her new partner emerges.

Also running along underneath the season is an increased focus on corruption in the police force and inefficiency in the justice system. An FBI probe prompted by whistle-blowing cop Terry Colson (David Morse) turns his life into a nightmare, and almost runs a wedge between him and Toni (Melissa Leo), who continues to investigate possible unsolved murders perpetrated by a corrupt police officer. In this, Toni is aided by an aggessive young reporter named L.P. Everett (Chris Coy), whose journalistic prowess shines a little light on the city’s systemic injustice. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), meanwhile, continues a Job-like struggle to keep her bar running in the wake of relentless external pressures and personal stresses in her own search for justice. The only ray of light for her proves to be a budding flirtation with Big Chief Lambreaux (Clarke Peters).

In the end, as a season it doesn’t add up quite as neatly as the previous two, which were perfectly honed. But ultimately that didn’t matter to me, because I’m still highly invested in the show’s characters, and addicted to its patient narrative techniques. No other show unfolds quite the way Treme does, with its inexorably escalating crises and hard-fought triumphs, believably gradual personal transformations, and an utterly realistic focus on examining American life in our times. In that sense, it’s every bit as successful and compelling as The Wire, a time capsule of our problems and our strengths.

This artistic brilliance may have been the death of the show; perhaps Treme is too true to life to win over viewers seeking to escape life’s very problems? The good news is, HBO has renewed it for an abbreviated fourth year; unfortunately it will not get a full season to close out its complex mission, but at least it will get a chance to do so. Ratings aside, this show is a work of art; not for everybody, to be sure, but one that I think will stand the test of time.

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