Strictly in terms of ratings and media buzz, Treme is the red-headed stepchild among HBO’s dramatic series. This complex and compelling ensemble drama from The Wire colleagues David Simon and Eric Overmyer is a love letter to the city of New Orleans, warts and all, in the months and years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Like The Wire, Treme addresses complicated issues of ethnic identity, political corruption and moral relativism in powerful, character-driven scenes performed by a dazzling cast.
In other words, don’t expect any dragons or sexy vampires.
So maybe it’s not surprising that Treme has flown under the radar of many HBO subscribers, despite a 2011 George Foster Peabody Award, with the judges applauding how “the storylines snake and swoop like an unhurried jazz jam in this rich drama.” Treme likewise has received scant attention from Emmy voters, netting only two nominations (no wins) to date.
I didn’t catch up with Treme until HBO aired its third season, which HBO Home Entertainment releases today on Blu-ray and DVD in an extras-rich four-disc set. Although the impact of this series is cumulative and relies in large part on your familiarity with the characters, I had little trouble jumping in and following the stories and relationships, although I simultaneously was playing catch-up on Seasons One and Two. Those first two seasons, which included the suicide of one beloved main character and the sexual assault on another, were always engrossing yet sometimes grueling to endure.
Season Three, which opens two years after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, is more upbeat in tone, although stories of widespread police corruption and corporate fraud still have the power to boost your blood pressure by several points.
In the 10 episodes of this set, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) becomes deeply invested in helping a special-needs student among his middle-school band members, while his ex-wife, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), tries to cope with terrifying threats as she awaits the trial of her assailant. Crusading attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) and New Orleans homicide Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse) both face steep uphill battles as they try to expose the rot within the local police department, and chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) returns to New Orleans when an entrepreneur offers her a restaurant gig that seems too good to be true (spoiler alert: It is). Elsewhere, erstwhile DJ David McAlary (Steve Zahn) and his girlfriend, Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), start to drift apart when she takes her band, Bayou Cadillac, on tour and he becomes obsessed with writing a rhythm-and-blues opera about Katrina.
Even if you caught Season Three when it aired on HBO last fall, this new home video set is crammed with so many special features that any Treme fan will want to add it to his collection. Audio commentaries from the creative team include Simon, director Tim Robbins (who helmed this season’s stunning plus-sized Mardi Gras episode), and cast members Pierce, Alexander, Rob Brown and Clarke Peters, among several others.
There are also three “Behind Treme” featurettes spotlighting the fantastic culinary dishes featured in the show, a short profile of the Neville Brothers and a revelatory 10-minute interview with Simon, a former journalist who freely admits that in Treme, as well as his previous fact-based HBO dramas The Wire and Generation Kill, his primary goal isn’t simple entertainment.
“That doesn’t mean I believe the shows aren’t responsible for being entertaining on some level,” he explains. “But it’s not what I got into the writing business for. I was more interested in the real. I was more interested in conveying the arguments and debates and discussions about what the world is.”
The set also includes multiple features focusing on the extraordinary music showcased in Treme, including music commentaries on each episode from Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR Music and Josh Jackson of WBGO, a public radio station with a heavy jazz emphasis.
In short, HBO Home Entertainment clearly has lavished a lot of love and respect on this video set, and if you sample it, you’re likely to find yourself never wanting to leave the troubled yet beautiful world Treme evokes with such aching perfection. It also will have you jonesing for the fourth and final season of Treme, which begins Dec. 1.