Wendell Pierce

Money makes the world go 'round, but on the third season of HBO's Treme, it just makes life in post-Katrina New Orleans that much harder.

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"The first season you saw the people come back," co-creator David Simon tells TVGuide.com. "The second season, the problems began to come back. And this third season, some money and some opportunity starts to present itself. But in this country, nothing is free and nothing is without strings. Everything is a hard choice."

While Treme remains a love letter to the sights, sounds and tastes of one of America's most eclectic cities, Simon says the third season, which premieres Sunday at 10/9c on HBO, speaks to the situation of the entire country. "There is something allegorical in what happened to New Orleans after Katrina and where the country as a whole finds itself now," Simon says. "Three years later, our flood control gave way on Wall Street, and we came to the realization that a lot of what we considered to be institutionally viable in our society was actually the same spit and chewing gum that was propping up New Orleans for too many years. There is a metaphor here, and I think that a lot of characters are confronting that in Season 3."

Among the characters fighting against New Orleans' dysfunctional and often corrupt government is civil rights attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), who finds an ally in a reporter named P.L. Everett (Chris Coy). "They are in a dark cave and they are each holding a different piece of the elephant," Simon says of the partnership. "They're actually trying to acquire the same information for different purposes. They are trying to figure out what happened after the storm and why this police department is out of control."

See photos of the Treme cast

The Everett character is actually based on real-life reporter A.C. Thompson, whose work did yield major results. "He stumbled into an extraordinary story that broke open," Simon says. "It was the peel top on the can of what was really ailing that police department and what was ailing the city. He pulled it open. ... The beginning of confronting the federal government with a need to look into all those deaths after the storm began with a singular act of journalism."

But the wheels of justice are slow, as represented by LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), who watches the case against the man who beat and raped her last season grind to a halt in the court system. "It's about what a victim feels when they are trying to assert their own life... by demanding more in response to an affront like that," Simon says, "The courthouse is in as much disarray as the police department, if not more so. And so citizens have to contend with that. It takes an awful lot of heart to be a New Orleanian. It takes an awful lot of endurance. And yet there is an awful lot of joy that comes with the territory."

Much of that joy is reflected by the show's artistic characters, including musicians Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) and Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), and chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens). But money complicates their lives as well. Janette is offered the financial backing to open her dream restaurant in New Orleans and Annie considers a lucrative opportunity that might take her away from the clubs and street corners of her beloved city.

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"Everything comes with a cost," Simon says. "That doesn't mean you don't take it. That doesn't mean that you walk away from the money at all points. Money is in neutral. It's the way in which it wraps itself that you have to struggle with and debate.

"A lot of the people who have had the most successful and influential musical careers in America came from New Orleans," Simon continues. "They had to leave New Orleans to do it. Nobody knew who Louis Armstrong was in New Orleans; he had to go to Chicago for that. Staying has its beauties and delights but it also has its costs."

Indeed, Simon says the new season explores what exactly motivates the people of New Orleans to stand by their city. "When you are living in a town that has a retrograde police department, and a disastrous school system, and one of the most corrupt civic governments in the history of the republic, and you still don't want to live anywhere else, the town is doing something right," he says. "Katrina led a lot of New Orleanians to reflect on ... why they can't live anywhere else. It led a lot of people to think about what it is they value in life as part of this community and to hold on to that and do everything possible to serve it and maintain it.

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"That's the affirming thing that I find fascinating," Simon continues. "In my opinion, what saved the city, to the extent the city has been saved, has been the city's culture. Not its political leadership. Not the money that was ostensibly directed or misdirected. It's not economics. It's not political. It's community and it's cultural. That's the one thing that New Orleans has gotten right in such a firm and unequivocal way."

Although Simon believes Season 3 begins to show some of those victories, he's still fighting for a fourth and final season for his low-rated show. (UPDATE: Simon has since said the show will return for an abbreviated fourth and final season.)

"The last season would get us to a couple of things I think would make the end of the story quite resonant," he says. "It gets us to the financial collapse that began in '08. It also gets us around to the next administration, which was a pivotal moment in terms of New Orleans being able to address its own problems with the violence and governance, and the role of the federal government seriously coming to terms with the city.

"It would be the effective place to take stock of how our characters have or have not reconstituted the community as they see it," Simon continues. "It's time enough. No, we won't get to the Super Bowl. No we won't get to BP. But one of the things I believe about storytelling is that your job isn't to sustain the franchise. You're trying to tell a story that has a real beginning, middle, and the best possible end for the story. ... Our responsibility is to fashion an ending. So we've gone to HBO. We've told them what's planned for Season 4. We know the best place to leave the world."

Treme premieres Sunday at 10/9c on HBO.