Sunday night's 90-minute "Treme" season 2 finale (10 p.m., HBO) is the series in a microcosm. There are times where it seems much longer than necessary for the stories that it's telling, but many more where the sense of atmosphere and joy is so great that the length becomes irrelevant. And every now and then, there's a moment that's incredibly powerful precisely because of the show's loose pace, which can seem relaxed to the point of catatonia if you're not invested.

Devoted viewers of the New Orleans-based drama have seen a few such moments already this season. For a year and a half, those viewers had watched jazz trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) try to find common ground with his stubborn, proud father Albert, a Mardi Gras Indian chief, and in turn they saw Albert refuse to budge even an inch. Then, a few episodes ago, Delmond - who had always scorned his father's traditions - revealed that he had been working on sewing a new piece for Albert's new Indian costume, and Albert responded with guarded praise for his craftsmanship. To someone watching casually, it may not have seemed like much, but to Delmond - and to everyone who'd been watching that relationship play out - it was everything, a little thing that hit like a ton of bricks because it had been traveling for so long to get there.

Now, the number of people willing to sit through all the small arguments and disappointments that led up to that moment, and all the scenes dedicated solely to showing musicians playing, and chefs cooking, is not that high. But it's high enough that - in conjunction with HBO's desire to stay in business with co-creator David Simon, who previously gave them "The Wire" - there will be a third season next year. And based on the growth curve "Treme" demonstrated from season 1 to season 2, my hopes are very high for what Simon, Eric Overmyer and company have to offer down the road.

The first season was strong enough that I put it on my Top 10 list for 2010, but the show had some flaws, including a leisurely narrative that bordered on the plotless, and an inescapable sense that certain characters (notably John Goodman as college professor Creighton Burnette) were only there to lecture viewers on all the terrible things that happened to New Orleans after Katrina.

But "Treme," like "The Wire," is a show that teaches you how to watch it. What can seem like plotlessness is, again, the writers taking the long (but often very entertaining) way around to making big points about character. And in the case of Creighton, his self-righteous screeds turned out to be just one symptom of the depression that would ultimately lead him to take his own life, in one of that first season's most moving episodes.

Still, season 2 has felt like it ever-so-slightly strengthened what had seemed like weak spots the year before. With the setting shifting into the period from the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2007, the writers were able to deal with the crime wave that overwhelmed the city in those months. The rise in crime - personified by the rape of one familiar character and the murder of another - gave the season a more overt shape and direction than season 1's more amorphous tales of survival and return did.

On top of that, nearly every character embarked on some sort of project that the show followed all season: charming trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) and hyperactive DJ Davis McAlary each formed his own band, violinist Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) resolved to learn how to write songs, expatriate chef Janette Desautel tried to find a place for herself in the high-end kitchens of New York City, etc. "Treme" was never in danger of becoming as densely plotted as "The Wire," but at least it was now a show where you could easily explain what the storylines were to a non-viewer.

(Also, dramatizing the creative process is hard, and yet Simon, Overmyer and company managed to consistently do it without making those scenes feel like freshman seminars.)


And though Creighton's lectures were revealed to be part of the melancholy that drowned him, "Treme" does seem a bit more nimble without him. There were times last year where it felt like Creighton and other characters like Davis were trying too hard to tell the viewers about the greatness of both New Orleans and its suffering, where this year "Treme" has had an easier time of just stepping back and showing both to us.

The new season has not been without its flaws, either. The series went 1-for-2 with new characters, with David Morse's troubled cop Terry Colson fitting in seamlessly, while Jon Seda's smooth political operator Nelson Hidalgo has come across as a cipher, someone who seems more a symbol of what the season is about (trying to rebuild the city and the lives of its citizens) than an actual character connected to the rest of the ensemble. Melissa Leo's crusading defense lawyer Toni Burnette got stuck in a tedious story arc about an old unsolved murder involving a character viewers had no reason to invest in. (Though in fairness, that story finally finds a bit of juice in the finale as it becomes less about the victim than about tension between Toni and her friend Colson.) And the series' use of non-actors playing themselves has been a mixed bag: local politician Oliver Thomas has been quite good on camera, but some of the real musicians and chefs who have to interact with the regular cast are considerably more natural at this moonlighting gig than others.

But all that messiness ultimately feels appropriate to this funky show about a funky city. The core cast - containing not only an Oscar winner in Leo, but a woman in Khandi Alexander who should already have at least two Emmys for her work with Simon (here and in "The Corner") - remains incredible, and the show's adoration for New Orleans and all its culture and traditions is infectious. While not every storyline this year comes to a satisfying end - or, at least, to an end that's satisfying to the characters involved - the finale is packed with great music, and ambience, and moments of bliss, and others of pain, all of them painstakingly set up over the previous weeks, all of them beautifully observed.

Late in the finale, Davis - who has had to learn a few very humbling lessons this season about his own limitations - says of the city itself, "Even if it isn't as it should be, even if they make it hard, where else would we go? Who else would have us?"

I have never made it to New Orleans, but watching "Treme" every week creates the grand illusion that I have. And the more I watch these misfits and zealots and vagabonds (or, as Alexander's LaDonna would sum them up with three disdainful syllables, "musicians") who don't feel quite at home anywhere else on the planet, the more I feel a kinship with them. New Orleans is not for everyone. Nor is "Treme," but when I take my fictional trip there every Sunday night, it doesn't make sense that I would want to be anywhere else.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com