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Why You Should Have Been Watching Treme Instead of The Killing

Two weeks ago, The Killing aired its first season finale. The Internet went blue with fury, a Vancouver hockey riot of TV fans, with many complaining, quite reasonably, that the show didn’t answer its own ad’s murder-mystery question, “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” (Which it did not, one outlying review to the contrary.) But unfortunately, even if one were willing to accept the finale's ambiguity, it raised a more unnerving question, which is what The Killing’s thirteen episodes added up to in retrospect: a mulch of rain, grief porn, red herrings, cell phones with no buzz setting, and terrible writing filmed with enough skill to deceive many viewers into believing they were watching quality television, not a stretched-out Law & Order: Better Cameras.

Showrunner Veena Sud participated in a few post-finale Q&As that inflamed even the most openhearted viewers. She explained that her series was an “anti-cop cop show” not intended to “tie things up in a bow.” And she gave a prickly-haughty explanation that sounded as if she were channeling French feminist theorist Helene Cixous or possibly Julie Taymor: “Either it's a left brain journey where you're just connecting the dots of who the suspects are or it's more of a holistic journey where a young girl is murdered these are the potential suspects and this is why.”

The weirdest thing about all this nonsense was that there was a show out there that had been doing much of what Veena Sud was talking about, with little buzz. That show is HBO’s Treme, created by David Simon, the showrunner who had created an actual anti-procedural procedural called The Wire. As everyone who griped about Treme during its occasionally satisfying but definitely overpreachy first season knows, Treme is no The Wire. It’s set in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s about musicians (but not only musicians: It’s about cooks and New Orleans Indians and chatty D.J.'s). It is punctuated by loose sequences of musicians playing, jamming, killing time, joking around. And while The Wire’s central theme was corruption, Treme is a show about creativity — a notoriously tough subject to dramatize.

As it happens, even as The Killing was getting all the press, Treme was having a quietly amazing second season, one that happened to feature a right-brain holistic journey and a refreshing unwillingness to tie things into bows. Because while Treme has plenty of lively stories in its mix, the most distinct thing about the show is its playful, circular, unpredictable, unresolved structure. Unlike almost every ambitious TV experiment, including great ones like The Sopranos and terrible ones like The Killing, Treme isn't an elevating riff on a sitcom, or a police procedural, or a soap opera. It isn’t fueled by generic familiarity, even as something to reject. When I interviewed David Simon on the set of Treme, before his show began airing, he described Robert Altman as an inspiration and Altmanesque is how the show feels: intuitive, sly-humored, unexpectedly moving, subtle and full of visual surprise, adding up in bits and pieces, wild performances bracketing scraps of dialogue, quick cuts, an emphasis on facial expressions and a slow, flowing, satisfying overall feel of ... well, funkiness. Or gumbo. Oh God, I shouldn't say gumbo, should I?

Last season, that slow and funky flow also meant that the show could be boring. But as another recent raging cultural debate made apparent, one man’s "boring" can be another woman’s "totally worth it." And for me, the second season of Treme is not only un-boring, it’s thrilling — the rare television show that rewards careful attention. In this way, the show actually is a bit like The Wire. And in these dicey days for TV ambition, Treme has become a rarity, a show that pays back our loyalty rather than leaves us feeling ripped off.

I’m not requiring you to re-watch season one, if it wasn’t your thing. I watched it all, but I was mainly onboard for Kim Dickens as an underdog chef and also [spoiler alert] for the unexpected punch-in-the-chest of Creighton Burnette’s suicide. But now I’m interested in all the characters, even the chatty D.J., even the gloomy New Orleans Indian, hell, even the mediocre guitarist/junkie. Wendell Pierce is great, Khandi Alexander is great, Melissa Leo is great, her daughter is great, I’m not quite as interested in the saintly violinist but she certainly has her moments, and the newest character — a shark of a real-estate speculator played by hip-twitching Jon Seda — adds a welcome note of aggression. Unlike the dour cartoons in The Killing, these people feel at once real and unfamiliar. The Killing got a ton of unearned praise for its portrayal of Rosie Larsen’s bereaved family, but Treme has gone a mile deeper into grief, tracing Creighton’s family’s shock and denial, but also giving other characters meaningful traumas that scar rather than resolve. There’s plenty of joy on Treme. But when its characters hurt, it's more than one-note wailing.

I don’t want to give away every plot turn, since you’re about to download season two On Demand, but suffice it to say that people are suffering. Crime is back in New Orleans: One character was gang-raped, and in a truly devastating sequence that aired the same night as The Killing finale, another was murdered. And yet violence isn’t the show’s engine. The artist’s life is. There’s a meta-quality to many of the scenes of artists making art, since nearly all of them touch on debates about which types of creativity are authentic, political, pleasurable, meaningful, or lucrative, questions that clearly apply to the creation of the series itself. But rather argue like an op-ed, Treme feels like poetry, and even better, it has begun to incorporate critiques of its own New Orleans exceptionalism, playfully showing the ways these attitudes can sour into pedantry, as they do on occasion with that Indian Chief, who is currently in New York driving his jazz musician son crazy with his passive-aggressive provincialism.

Did I say poetry? I meant music. Often, Treme feels like we’ve been invited to a very cool party. Or a party full of parties: The party scenes on this series are spectacular. I’m not into jazz — at all — and I’m loving the music scenes. Look, people, what can I say, you'll just have to trust me. The finale is this Sunday, but you know how to use that DVR.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO