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Sneak Peek: Exclusive Preview from HBO’s Treme, Season Three (video)

At the outset of Season 3 of the HBO series Treme Antoine Batiste is rushing to attend a second line in memory of New Birth Brass Band tuba player Kerwin James in 2007, a little more than two years after Katrina. He arrives in the Treme neighborhood to find Glen David Andrews leading a vast array of brass band musicians in the funeral march standard “I’ll Fly Away” when police cars surround the celebrants and tell them to disperse. It’s a chilling moment in New Orleans history that actually occurred. The police tell Andrews that there are noise complaints, and he immediately lowers his trombone and continues singing “I’ll Fly Away,” getting right in the cop’s face. His anger and defiance is real beyond anything an actor can produce. It’s the look of a man fighting to defend his family and friends against a final insult so total as to nullify his very existence, something beyond even death. Finally Andrews is dragged off by the cops and the scene ends.

The moment is so packed with historic significance and raw emotion it could have swamped the entire season before it began, making anything else that followed it seem trivial by comparison. It’s a tribute to the skilled writing of the Treme team (episode one was penned by the A squad of series creator David Simon and staff ace Anthony Bourdain) that Batiste’s comic strengths as a character interceded to prevent the reality of the moment from getting too real. Later in the episode lawyer Toni Bernette sees that the police have released both Andrews and Derrick Tabb, who were the players actually arrested in the incident. Everyone is laughing. “You shamed the police out of making a bad arrest?” asks an incredulous Bernette. Then, shaking her head she says “Glen, you’d make a hell of a lawyer.”

The stupendous irony of this statement will be played out in November when Andrews, who has undergone several months of drug rehab, returns to New Orleans to face trumped up charges of attempted murder brought by a D.A.’s office with a clear grudge against the musician. The defiant Andrews of the Treme shoot is a different man today, humbled and eager to return to his hometown both to accept responsibility for the bad choices he’s made in his life up until now and to clear his name.

The change in Andrews’ demeanor demonstrates the tremendous risk Treme takes in using real-life New Orleans musicians alongside actors playing musicians who interact with them. For the most part, the musicians simply play themselves as musicians, and the actors play out the life changes that musicians actually go through, but in Andrews’ case the risks that some of the musicians might actually change their lives comes into play.

Those kind of risks are what makes Treme such good drama. The presence of real people doing real things against the backdrop of a thoroughgoing tragedy like the destruction of a major American city brings these stories to life in a palpable, flesh-and-blood way. When the actors fall in and out of love, trade sexual partners, undergo bitter personal tragedies and discover the severe dangers in getting what you wish for, there’s a verisimilitude that goes far beyond soap opera because they’re acting out the themes that the real life characters alongside them endure in their own existence.

Such nuances may not attract audiences the way those sexy vampire shows and mobster revenge fantasies that dominate televised entertainment do, but they provide enduring drama that will live well past its first run. Treme shares the dramatic resonance that Simon’s other masterpiece, The Wire, achieved. Amid the comic relief and stock tales of success and failure, the discerning viewer is confronted with harsh truths about a contemporary world steeped in corruption and moral relativism where heroes and villians are not always easily identifiable and chance circumstances often play a deciding factor in the outcome. One person’s search for the truth is another’s recognition of its absolute futility in the face of a world where the odds will always be stacked against you. The noblest and sweetest of characters are also the easiest victims. The actual protagonists end up being the characters willing to lose everything and walk away knowing they still are true to themselves. Season three begs for these stories to be continued.

John Swenson