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‘Treme’ Comes to Gratifying, Bittersweet End

The 85-minute season finale to HBO’s “Treme” carries an “in memoriam” to writer-producer David Mills, who died while working on the show — a few weeks before its April premiere — at the age of 48. It’s only one bittersweet aspect of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s ambitious but sometimes frustrating series, which reaches such an appropriate conclusion that I frankly wish it would end there.

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For those caught up on episodes in advance of Sunday’s closer (and SPOILER ALERT if you’re not), the fractured relationships, financial stresses and finally suicide associated with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath don’t entirely wrap up in the finale. But the series goes a long way in capturing the spirit of those committed to the survival of New Orleans and its unique character, despite all the forces — including the recent Gulf oil spill — that have assailed the city.

Simon’s shows don’t exactly specialize in hopeful or tidy endings, but the 10th installment does bring several disjointed plot threads into a kind of harmony, with a few glimpses of hope peeking through. The show also flashes back fleetingly to the day of the hurricane, which proves especially poignant in light of all that’s transpired during the season.

For my money, “Treme” still qualifies as a near-miss — a series so enamored with the atmosphere of New Orleans that its dramatic storytelling suffered. If you’re not a genuine jazz aficionado, episodes ground to a halt so that the various musicians (real and imagined) featured in the show could play for what in TV are deadening stretches. The ratings have not surprisingly been mediocre, though that’s characteristic of Treme15 Simon’s work, which surely resides on TV’s art-house tier.

In one of those grand gestures that the pay services love to make, HBO went ahead and renewed “Treme” for a second season immediately after its premiere.

“This was a no-brainer for us,” HBO programming topper Michael Lombardo told Daily Variety at the time. “We say this about ourselves, ‘It’s not always about the ratings.’ If a show is this excellent and the audience so passionate, for us that’s enough.”

But in hindsight I’d say that endorsement was premature. And while Simon and company have such a splendid cast to work with, I can’t really imagine another flight of episodes holding much more than this initial run did.

Would the pay service rethink the order, or at least reduce it? There’s precedent for that, and if the decision were left to me, I’d consider it. Because after that initial tide of good reviews, “Treme” quickly became a pretty good metaphor for New Orleans itself: Worth admiring and wishing the best, but once out of sight, sadly, pretty well out of mind.

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