Wendell Pierce

In an early episode of Treme's second season, a disc jockey asks one of the show's musician characters how his new album is selling. "Selling?" the musician replies in almost disbelief. "It's jazz, man."

The dialogue is a perfect metaphor for the HBO drama, whose co-creators, The Wire's David Simon and Eric Overmyer, have always favored atmosphere and character over plot. Like that incredulous musician, Simon is more concerned with art than television ratings, because he says it's the art that always survives.

Check out photos of the Treme cast

"This show is about the near-death of an American city and what brought it back," Simon tells TVGuide.com "And what brought it back was not politics; it wasn't economics or any of that nonsense. What brought it back was New Orleanians saying they didn't want to be anything other than New Orleanians. Culture is what brought the city back, and it brought it back one trumpet solo and one second line at a time."

But in the second season of Treme, which is set 14 months after the storm, New Orleans and its citizens are still really at the beginning of the climb. "That second year, in some ways, was harder than the first," Overmyer says. "That period was a very dark period in New Orleans. There were some really tough times."

"The first year was the return of people amid almost a sea of adrenaline," Simon says. "People were in a rush to get back. They were furious, they were angry, they were politicized. They wanted to rebuild their city. The adrenaline ran them through that first Mardi Gras. Season 2 is where New Orleanians realized, 'Man, this is going to be a long haul.' ... There's a lot of reflection and there's a lot of weariness."

Treme overcomes tragedy, on-screen and off

Indeed, Toni (Melissa Leo) continues to cope with her husband's suicide and the impact his death has their daughter (India Ennega), who's taken his place as an angry voice of dissent on YouTube. Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) is desperate to find ways to keep her bar, her last remaining connection to New Orleans, afloat. And Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) finds himself semi-homeless when the insurance check he receives won't even begin to cover the damages.

On the other hand, Davis (Steve Zahn) has settled into a happy relationship with violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli), and Antoine (Wendell Pierce) finds joy in putting together his own band and teaching music to kids. Just as those characters celebrate the city's vibrancy, so does newcomer Nelson Hidalgo (The Pacific's Jon Seda), a carpetbagging venture capitalist from Texas.

"He sees an opportunity to be had from a disaster," Seda says. "He's coming to help, but to help his pockets at the same time. But he also ends up really feeling the spirit of New Orleans and enjoying  what New Orleans is really all about."

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David Morse, who recurred during first season, joins the cast full-time this season as Lt. Terry Colson, a police officer who becomes the face of this season's focus on crime. "He's trying to cope with the rising crime wave and they're also dealing with internal corruption and the dysfunction of the department," Overmyer says. "He represents an honest cop who's trying to work within a system that's pretty broken."

Crime and broken bureaucratic systems were, of course, a huge part of The Wire. But Simon, a former journalist, insists that for Treme, he will let history guide his art, no matter how well it does or doesn't sell. "We're chronicling something that's touching against the tropes of television," he says. "Yes, we're talking about crime, but it's because crime became one of the elemental stories in the second year. All we're doing is following the actual chronology. We're really being journalistic about what this show is about."

Treme premieres Sunday at 10/9c on HBO.