Please Note: The stills used here are taken from the series' promotional materials, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
The second season of HBO's New Orleans drama Treme takes the series into a comfortable stride, settling deeper into the characters and the city's culture and proving that David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill) is one of the more expansive creative minds working in television. You have to give credit to the network for their commitment to pushing the boundaries of episodic television in general and for sticking with this show in particular. Try to recommend Treme to your friends, sometime. If you can get past them not being able to pronounce the name (I've actually said, "You've probably seen something about it. The title looks like 'treem' but it's pronounced 'treh-may"), good luck trying to sell them on what the show is about. "It's set in New Orleans post-Katrina, and you follow around musicians and a chef and a blogger and a lawyer and it's kind of got no story, but there's lots of music."
When it comes down to it, what makes Treme such a hard sell is also what makes it so good. As a narrative, the show is essentially plotless. Yes, things happen, characters deal with obstacles and embrace or reject change, but there's no defining story line or pitchable concept. You're never quite sure what will happen episode to episode, and though events connect, it's not the typical challenge/reward mechanizations that one assumes is at work in any serialized television show. Treme works with the rhythm of life. The day-to-day existence of common people doesn't follow standard three-act structure. It's up and down, with some days offering resolutions and others going off into nowhere, seemingly meaningless, maybe important, it could take some time to know.
In a way, Simon does this kind of thing all the time. His shows have themes as opposed to goal-oriented activity. Even The Wire, which presented one case per season, took it's time on so many other things, the criminal activity and police work could often seem secondary. If the theme of the first season of Treme was one of hope and rebirth, then Treme: The Complete Second Season is arguably about despair and disappointment in the face of overwhelming adversity. At the start of this cycle, most of the characters are tired and looking to get out of the rut they are in or, like John Goodman's character the year before, contemplating packing it in. When he left, it's like he opened up a big hole and everyone fell into it with him.
Excepting Goodman, pretty much everyone else is back for The Complete Second Season. His character's wife, Toni (Melissa Leo), is still around, for instance, and she is having to deal with the consequences of his decisions. (Though it makes no sense to me that you'd be reading this without having seen The Complete First Season, I'm tiptoeing around spoilers anyway.) She also picks up another case of trying to find out what happened to someone's child during the storm. This time, rather than a native lost in the police system, it's an outsider who was killed but whose death remains unexplained. Much like the last time, her quest for truth is an attempt to not just divine what happened, but force someone to take responsibility. And in keeping with the season's focus, which was also escalated by the outcome of her last case, the stakes have been drastically increased.
Other characters are attempting to get back to normal and contending with the obstacles preventing the same. Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), the elder statesman and one of the Indian Chiefs who dresses up in traditional garb for Mardi Gras, can't get the assistance he needs to move back in his house. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is trying to get his own band started, but is being pushed toward more steady employment. His ex-wife, Ladonna (the marvelous Khandi Alexander), is struggling to keep her bar alive, but is finding it difficult, particularly as crime has returned to the streets of New Orleans in a big way. (Thus making the way for David Morse's police lieutenant to have a bigger role in The Complete Season Two.) Even someone who ostensibly escaped is having a hard time avoiding the lure of the city. Janette (Kim Dickins) has a job in a fancy New York eatery now (and foodies will probably enjoy trying to figure out what chef her fictional boss is parodying), but it's not the same, and she still has roots back in Louisiana.
Music, of course, plays a big part in Treme. Every episode features multiple performances, mixing the actors with genuine players from the area. The presence of such creativity and unfettered expression becomes increasingly important to the story, as well. Music is seen as a key to rebirth. Antoine's burgeoning soul group could provide him new opportunities, and Davis (Steve Zahn) is looking to rally people around the various styles of his hometown. Even Albert's son, Delmond (Rob Brown), is finding inspiration in what the New Orleans tradition has to offer. As a character who began the series trying to reject where he came from, his slow re-acceptance of the same is going to prove key to everyone moving on, including his father.
It's not all status quo, either. The Pacific's Jon Seda joins the cast as Nelson Hidalgo, the cousin of the Texas transplant who fixed Ladonna's roof in season one. Nelson has moved to New Orleans to "aid" in the rebuilding; in truth, he is a carpetbagger, no matter how much he insists otherwise. David Simon is interested in the way politics affects communities, and Nelson represents the opportunists who gamed the system following the Hurricane. He is a great character, moving slickly through the local scene, but quite possibly not leaving it better than how he found it. If nothing else, he's taking away cash and opportunity that could line the pockets of those who really lived through the storm.
It's always difficult to assess an ensemble cast such as Treme's, as there is no real lead character and no weak link. Clarke Peters' stoic portrayal of Albert, fueled by indignation and a barely checked rage, provides a kind of righteous grounding for the narrative, yet Wendell Pierce's hustling, yet generally well-meaning, Antoine gives us a taste of the artistic life. Characters whom one might otherwise despise, such as bad boyfriend and struggling addict Sonny (Michiel Huisman), become sympathetic thanks to the performer's nuanced delivery. When even Steve Zahn manages not to be annoying playing the annoying Steve Zahn character, you know something special is going on.
As is likely to be the norm across Treme's lifetime, the narrative fulcrum of the season rests on Mardi Gras. The annual event comes midway through, and Carnival allows for moments of release and also self-reflection. Positive solutions are put into motion for many of the story lines, and most everyone is at least forced to face his or her problems head on, even if not in the most immediate and correct manner. This year we also get the opportunity to see a Creole tradition that is a bizarre alternative to Mardi Gras and takes place far away from the city.
There are still a few surprises left after the Carnival, some added complications on the way to the finale. Even so, it's when you get to the end of Treme: The Complete Second Season that you realize how much distance has been traveled, how much has really happened in all these lives observed. If you made it far enough to be watching season two to begin with, you know how invested it's possible to be in this show; by the end of Treme: The Complete Second Season, expect that investment to pay you back, and possibly even double or triple what you put into it.
All four discs have a variety of extras, most of which are excellent and geared toward illuminating different aspects of the show. Commentary fiends will be pleased that there are four different commentaries featuring cast and crew. These are spread across the season. Better, though, are HBO's innovative enhanced tracks, including "Down in the Treme: A Look at the Music and Culture of New Orleans" and "The Music of Treme." These go beyond the standard commentary and give supplemental material that is embedded in the viewing experience, allowing viewers to navigate different topics. The music one is a tad disappointing, since it just gives the names of the songs and the performers rather than allowing for extra listening, but this should aid you in finding what you want to hear on whatever music service you use. (Plenty of folks on Spotify have already built and shared Treme playlists.) It's also helped by the fact that there are scene-specific music commentaries on all the episodes, with a couple of DJs with expert knowledge on the music giving insight on selected tracks.
The half-hour "The Art of Treme" is a Q&A pairing co-creators/executive producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer and actor Clarke Peters with Tulane University scholars to discuss the making of the show and the reality that goes into it. Also pulling back the curtain are two "Behind Treme" featurettes, one focusing on the food of New Orleans and the other on the Indian tradition represented by Peters' character. Both are under 10 minutes.