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Treme Returns Tonight For Season Three

The third season of Treme starts as in so many episodes, with Antoine Batiste  (Wendell Pierce) in a cab, debating the details with a driver and volleying for a pass, or in this case straight up arguing the geometry of the Crescent City triangle. Just over two years since Katrina, it’s a friendly welcome back to viewers – local or not – who have watched the HBO series since day one.

New Orleans native Wendell Pierce stars as Antoine Batiste in HBO's Treme.

Batiste’s path to Adultsville is among the anchors of the third season, which, as has been generalized/hyped, focuses on the post-Katrina return of money and “business” (season 1 being about the return of the city’s residents, season two about the return of its crime). Newly stable – relatively speaking – as a middle school band teacher, Antoine makes overtures not fathomable when he was just the guy doggy-styling a girl in a FEMA trailer barely into season one before going home to his baby mama Desiree (the always stellar Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who can deliver a line without affect and own an entire scene in the process).

Along with Batiste’s character arc, the highlight of this season is without a doubt the interaction between Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) and his father, “Big Chief” Albert (Clarke Peters), fresh off their generations-spanning musical collaboration and brought together by circumstances to be divulged shortly.

Without giving away spoilers, there are glances, the slightest of gestures that are absolutely electric. They’re proof of how Treme, in its finest moments, excels with a minimum of dialogue. As with Pierce, David Morse (increasingly weary police lieutenant Terry Colson), and the incomparable Khandi Alexander (LaDonna), a raised brow says more than any patronizing exposition could attempt. Kudos to creators/lead writers Eric Overmyer and David Simon for staying true to that restraint, and their commitment to the story of New Orleans – every sound, taste, smell, outrage and joyful noise.

It’s a good, if not terrific season. Annie Tee, as lovely and winning as she is as a fiddle player – and by extension, Lucia Micarelli as a naturally gifted actress — should not be singing. Her voice is strained, to the point of grating, and she’s not believable as a frontwoman. Worse yet, there’s absolutely no soul. She sounds like she’s singing from the back of her throat, not the gut of a city, not the anima of a character still devastated by the loss of her close friend Harley (Steve Earle). As a diehard fan of the series from the get-go, I’m hesitant to say such, but with every episode, I buy it – her character – less.

As for the others, it’s interesting, if uneven, to watch their individual journeys progress. Sonny (Michiel Huisman) is committed to sobriety but struggling with the familial dynamics of his Vietnamese girlfriend. Davis (ever hammy but endearing Steve Zahn) mounts a Katrina-focused opera and in turn gives the series an excuse to pack every hour full of New Orleans’ musical legends — from Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry to the now late James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford. (Davis’ latest project is also an excuse to feature the scene-stealing Elizabeth Ashley as his martini-loving aunt and partner-in-recording-crime Mimi).

The mighty Ms. LaDonna also struggles with kin (in-laws, natch) but fights back in much appreciated – though not at all contrived – comic relief. Newly Yank-ified chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) fights her urge to return to her roots and her native palate. And crusading single mother Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) is sussing out the latest injustice, joined by a young reporter, while trying to get a glimpse of teenage daughter Sofia’s new, older beau.

I find it interesting in writing this preview that the last three characters mentioned were women, brilliantly portrayed by all. Among Treme’s greatest strengths is that, looking back on three years of ace storytelling, its female roles are uncompromisingly outstanding. Characters like LaDonna, Janette, Toni are so magnificently and thoroughly enveloped by their actresses that they’re taken for granted. Certainly I have erred in not acknowledging them earlier.

Perhaps that’s why the progression of Annie’s character, as well as she is portrayed by Ms. Micarelli, does nothing for me, in fact detracts from the show at this point. The characterization is not remotely in their league, and is not helped by how it is afforded center stage every episode.

That said, the music has never been more bountiful, nor the food. Other daily realities creep up, keeping in tune with the return of business/money: newly shut-out Nelson Hidalgo’s latest carpetbagging angle; formaldehyde in the federally-provided trailers; the anti-blight shitshow efforts; several civic, governmental and neighborhood powers-that-be on the take; preposterous and insulting city crackdowns on live music. Episode 1 bears witness to it all, though not in the fashion you’d expect. Ultimately, this season, as with life in New Orleans, is about the moments, the fleeting instances that convey there’s nowhere else but here. It’s far from perfect, let alone consistent, but it’s home, and for that, we should be glad Treme is back.

Season Three of Treme premiere tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO.

(On that note, Overmyer and Simon announced Saturday that HBO has greenlit a final, albeit shorter fourth season. At a premiere party at the Joy Theater, they dubbed the forthcoming half-season “Treme 3.5.” Stay tuned for more details to follow this new batch of 10 episodes.)

–Amanda Schurr