HBO’s ‘Treme’ returns: Call it a comeback

( Paul Schiraldi / PAUL SCHIRALDI PHOTOGRAPHY ) - ‘Treme’ Season 2: Khandi Alexander.

“Treme,” David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s beautifully depressing, post-Katrina New Orleans drama, returns for a second season Sunday night with some subtle but important changes in the way it moves and feels. It’s worth another shot.

Or, for some viewers, a third shot. Maybe a fourth.

Because everyone wants to talk about TV with the TV critic (especially at parties), I know from anecdotal evidence that lots of viewers, especially those from HBO’s most loyal demographics, aren’t watching “Treme.” They grimace and shrug apologetically when the title is spoken. (Some still call it Treem.)

The popular explanation for this is that “Treme” failed to somehow replicate the astronomical praise for “The Wire,” the Baltimore cops-’n’-crime saga that elevated Simon and his cohort into a realm of MacArthur genius grants and being commonly referred to as our century’s Charles Dickens. That can be a lot to live up to as well as a lot to live down.

The first season of the show was far from perfect. After an artfully executed launch, “Treme” relied too heavily on the strength of its verisimilitude, with characters emotionally and metaphorically treading water. It lingered, lolled, observed. When indefatigable lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) at last located the refrigerated body bag containing LaDonna’s (Khandi Alexander) lost brother, the show seemed to be intentionally avoiding climax or surprise twists. Here you had two women giving magnificent performances that carried “Treme,” but they had nowhere to carry it.

That’s because neither Leo nor Alexander plays an instrument. For some viewers, there was simply too much musical interlude and rootsy reverence in “Treme,” which is the show’s most arresting and authentic quality — and curiously its most boring. Music overload can occasionally cause “Treme” to feel as though “Austin City Limits” has been grafted onto someone else’s little indie film.

Amid a protracted Mardi Gras arc (Mardi Gras never looks as fun on TV as it actually is), many people left “Treme” behind, which was a shame, because the season finale — flashing back to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall — was something to behold, one of the finest hours of TV last year.

So, once again: Try “Treme,” free from any obligation to rent the Season 1 box set. You can start here just fine.

In Sunday’s episode, it is now the fall of 2006 and New Orleans is still struggling to become something like its old self. “Treme” clearly intends to explore the flip side of its original characters, ramping down on some and elevating others.

Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who seemed so lackadaisically irritating before, is more interesting to watch as he entices his eccentric aunt into becoming a hip-hop record producer with him. LaDonna is traumatized and withdrawn after a frightening turn of events at her bar — a real risk for “Treme” given the level of energy and invincibility Alexander brought last season. Similarly, Leo’s character, Toni, seems lost in her legal work as she unwisely shields her grief-stricken teenage daughter (India Ennenga) from the truth about her husband Creighton’s suicide.

The show brings a couple of other fascinating characters to the forefront, including the long-underappreciated actor David Morse as Lt. Terry Colson, who is belatedly waking up to the corruption of his police department colleagues and whose story line is a lot more “Wire”-y, for lack of a better word; and a new villain of sorts, a modern-day carpetbagger from Texas named Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), who quickly grabs for a piece of the reconstruction pie.

The show still considers music and musicians to be its raison d’etre, and as trombonist Antoine Batiste, Wendell Pierce has emerged as a worthy lead player in this ensemble, able to convey so much of the city’s joy and hurt from one scene to the next.

While watching this improved and zestier “Treme,” I was reminded of how, late in “The Wire,” Simon and company bemoaned journalistic hackery in the form of a Baltimore Sun reporter who fabricated stories from the street that were too perfect to be true.

“Treme” suffers a bit from that same temptation as its characters often resemble the sort of down-on-their-luck, soulful people who turn up in long pieces of earnest but overwritten journalism about the plight of New Orleans. It’s often difficult for them to shed the topical baggage they are made to carry and simply be themselves. Still, if you stick with them, you’ll see “Treme” becoming a well-paced work of fiction rather than see “Treme” spending too much effort speaking truth to an indifferent power.

 
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