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Treme returns to HBO, as good or better than ever

Khandi Alexander is a key part of Treme's ensemble. HBO photo

Melodic as ever amid the overall pain and disappointments, Treme remains tremendous as it returns for a second season on HBO.

Paired on Sunday nights with the new Game of Thrones (already renewed for its Season 2) Treme likewise is a series that's set in another world. Except that this also is the hard knocks real world of New Orleans, the voodoo palace of jazz, blues, revelry and 2005's near wipeout from Hurricane Katrina.

Treme (9 p.m. central) picks up on All Saints Day, 2006 -- "Fourteen Months Later." Executive producer David Simon (The Wire) remains intent on both celebrating The Big Easy and keeping Katrina in play as a not-to-be-forgotten supporting character.

"We are following the actual timeline of post-Katrina New Orleans as a means of understanding what happened -- and what didn't happen -- when an American city suffered a near-death experience," Simon says in HBO publicity materials.

Sunday's first of 11 episodes begins with a kid carrying on the city's musical heritage by haltingly practicing on his horn. His mother has shooed him away, so he takes to the streets while painstakingly playing the same notes. It's an evocative, symbolic and perfectly composed start, with the kid walking past a graveyard whose population has swelled in recent months. The music of Treme remains front and center, whether from clubs or street corners. It's reason enough to listen/watch, but the denizens and their evolving stories are great hooks as well.

One larger-than-life character from last season, John Goodman's profane, proselytizing Creighton Bernette, is gone but not forgotten after committing suicide. His wife, Toni (Oscar winner Melissa Leo), a crusading attorney, and their teenage daughter, Sofia (India Ennenga), are left to pick up the pieces. Sofia copes by copping a 'tude, shutting out her mother and carrying on with some of her father's Internet rants against the government's calcified response to Katrina.

Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), Treme's quintessential man with a horn, continues to play gigs wherever he can get them while hoping to someday front his own band. Girlfriend Desiree (Phyllis Montana-Leblanc) sticks with him, and the shorthand dialogue of their relationship is one of the series' many delights.

On other fronts, LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) is still struggling to keep her bar/restaurant in business while life-long resident and cultural heritage preserver Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is increasingly despondent over losing his home and getting diddled by insurance companies. His son, Delmond (Rob Brown), remains a purist jazz trumpeter with a minimal market for his music. He divides his time between New Orleans and New York, where restaurateur Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) has relocated in hopes of making a better living. But working for a belittling, hot-tempered Gordon Ramsay-like chef is no cup of tea. And her roommates in NYC are a pair of infantile stoners.

The happier side of Treme's ensemble is helmed by radio DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who still can't keep a job for very long but is both calmed and rejuvenated by his new live-in relationship with violinist Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli). Her playing, by the way, is incredible, as you can see first-hand in Sunday's Episode 1.

Treme also has added a new character named Nelson Hildago. Fresh from Dallas and intent on making some quick profits from both demolition and rebuilding, he's very effectively played by Jon Seda from HBO's The Pacific miniseries. The always welcome David Morse also is now a regular character after being introduced last season as police lieutenant Terry Colson. He's basically a good cop who doesn't sweat the small stuff. "Let Bourbon Street be Bourbon Street," he stresses to his troops. Drunken businessmen with their pants down are good for business, so simply send them on their way.

The dialogue is as rich as the music, whether brief and to the point or an elongated discourse. In Episode 2, Delmond's spirited defense of New Orleans music at an elitist New York party is something you just don't get anywhere else. But back home, LaDonna's one-word put-down is delicious, too. Live music might perk up her business, she tells an employee, but there are upsides and downsides.

"What's the downside?" she's asked.

"Musicians," LaDonna snorts with perfect disdain.

Treme is a many-splendored triumph of slow-cooked storytelling and hot, humid music. Is it HBO's best drama series ever? From a ratings standpoint, no way, no how. But you won't find a better rendering of time and place anywhere else on the sprawling TV landscape. This is still the real deal, through and through.