Although Treme has traditional TV-show elements, with its emphasis on character and its multiple plotlines, there's really nothing else like it on television.
Its rhythms are different, and not just because this drama about post-Katrina New Orleans puts such an emphasis on music.
But music has something to do with the rhythms: long scenes of bands performing sometimes juxtaposed with scenes so brief that there's room for only one line of dialogue. Stories unfold slowly across the course of a season, but you don't necessarily notice because they fit so well into the stew of individual episodes.
Season 3, which begins Sunday, starts in fall 2007, 25 months after Katrina. There's a sense of reinvention, with many characters moving forward, such as fiddler/singer Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and chef Janette (Kim Dickens), whose careers are both on the rise. But there's also a sense that Annie and Janette -- and the city itself -- are being used by opportunistic outsiders.
Some of the characters, such as New Orleans Police Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse), are living in formaldehyde-contaminated FEMA trailers; others are fighting to keep their homes or their loved ones' homes from being demolished. Police corruption abounds (Colson sometimes seems like the only clean cop in the city), and crusading attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) is taking extreme measures to bring one rogue cop to justice, which affects her daughter Sofia (India Ennenga).
Inspired by real events, creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer and their writers have strong points to make, but sometimes they make them bluntly and clumsily, hammering them home with name-dropping of real-life musicians (many of whom appear) till some scenes begin to feel like a music-history course.
And Janette's plotline remains troublesome: In Season 2, her stint as a New York chef too often seemed like an excuse for celebrity-chef cameos; her return to New Orleans in Season 3 is welcome, but her story line about working in a corporate-style restaurant feels obvious and heavy-handed.
But the writers, who sometimes lapsed into stridency in Season 2, appear to be taking things a little less seriously this time around. DJ/gadfly Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) used to be one of the show's most grating characters, but his efforts this season to mount a post-Katrina "opera," featuring such surviving New Orleans music legends as Irma Thomas and Fats Domino, mix earnestness and absurdity deftly enough that the writers seem to be poking a little fun at themselves.
It's the same with Davis' attempt to start a tour of New Orleans music landmarks -- many of which are no longer standing.
The series somehow manages to stay dense and loose at the same time; the story lines mentioned here are just a fraction of what goes on during this season. But for all the multiple plotlines, it's not the individual stories but the whole of the piece that has the strongest impact.
It's a tricky balancing act, and sometimes the show trips itself up, coming off more as an op-ed piece than a drama. But the cumulative effect of Treme is that it's one of TV's most interesting, offbeat shows.
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872