True Detective is back, and for some it might be a blissful return. The anthology series created by Nic Pizzolatto premiered in 2014 (which seems like a lifetime ago) and seemingly kickstarted a new era of television. It was TV as cinema, a bold vision for what premium cable could pull off with a limited series (what we used to call “miniseries,” a term that now invokes network TV budgets, hokey period dramas, and ’80s B-list actors). Led by two Oscar-nominated actors in Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (the latter of which would win the Academy Award for Best Actor just a week before True Detective’s first season finale), a single credited writer in Pizzolatto, and a budding auteur in Cary Joji Fukunaga, the series was bombastic, buzzy, shocking, and brilliantly executed. It was a Southern gothic neo-noir that, sure, put tone and a timeline-skewering mystery over substance, but hey—it was challenging, befuddling, and fun to watch.
And then Season Two happened. The show lost its director, and gained more stars (Vince Vaughan, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams, and Colin Farrell), and upped the sleazy noir trappings—which ultimately proved to be a failure. Pizzolatto, who fashioned himself an auteur of his own, promised that the through-line of the True Detective anthology series would be his own bold-faced name. (“It’s all just me,” Pizzolatto told Vanity Fair in 2015. “That’s what makes it the same show.”) But fans cared less about the guy behind the show, and more about the gothic mystery itself; the California setting of Season Two was no match for the grimy, creepy, Flannery O’Connor-esque milieu of Season One. Also lost was Fukunaga’s phenomenal direction that heightened Pizzolatto’s scripts—which, even in the first season, were overwrought and full of dense dialogue and stereotypical characters.
Almost four years after the underwhelming second season, True Detective has returned—and it blessedly resembles the original season. Once again, there’s a heartland setting (the Ozarks), a brutal missing persons case (instead of dead prostitutes, we have abducted children), and an acclaimed director (Jeremy Saulnier, who made the thrillers Blue Ruin and Green Room, is at the helm of the first two episodes). Also joining the production team is Deadwood creator David Milch, brought in my his friends at HBO to assist the ambitious Pizzolatto. And in the lead role is Mahershala Ali, who has won an Oscar for his supporting role in Moonlight and just might win his second in the same category next month for Green Book.
But can the show ever stack up to its origins? The expectations are high, particularly after the second season whiffed it so badly. But the show’s course-correction seems to rely on returning to its familiar roots—which results in a mixed bag.
Once again, we follow a pair of hardened detectives: Ali’s Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff’s Roland West, two state policemen who are tasked with solving the abduction of two children in Northwest Arkansas in 1980 (they go missing on “the day Steve McQueen died,” we’re told twice in the first episode). It’s not an open-and-shut case by any means, as this is True Detective we’re talking about; Ali’s Hays is haunted by the case twice in his life: in 1990, when the case is reexamined for reasons I won’t reveal (as it’s a light spoiler for the second episode), and again in the present-day, when a septuagenarian Hays, showing early signs of dementia, is interviewed by a documentary crew about the bigger mysteries surrounding the case.
The Ozark setting feels eerily homey for those of us who enjoyed the original season; the poverty-stricken, rural nature of the new season’s hometown is perhaps less creepy than Season One’s Louisiana, but its characters feature a similarly meth-y vibe even if the 1980/1990 setting makes that a bit anachronistic. (It is admittedly odd to describe that druggy look with such familiar affection; while True Detective shows such obvious disdain for the big-city, over-educated documentary producer played by Sarah Gadon, it also depicts the locals with a condescending grotesqueness.) The ’80s Satanic Panic (reminiscent of the West Memphis Three documentary Paradise Lost) plays a role in the abduction of two children from this homegrown, Christ-haunted small town. And naturally, there is a bigger plot that our hero must uncover, over and over again, because time, as the first True Detective reminded us, is a flat circle—whatever that means.
And that brings us to the central flaw of this season, and the series as a whole: It is a conventional mystery plot—a simple one, really—that’s wrapped up in a overly complex package. Instead of pretty ribbons and bows, there is dirt and grime and a complicated narrative structure that sets up the show to be a puzzle for its audience to figure out. That was part of the first season’s appeal; it became a show to dissect and disassemble. For two months, fans parsed every line, every shot, as if it were all a dossier that would explain itself. The season’s finale proved, for the most part, that all of that investigating was for naught—it was, after all, a pretty simple murder mystery zhuzhed up with multiple timelines and unreliable narrators. Season Three attempts to do the same thing—one of the narrators in one of the three timelines shows early signs of Alzheimer’s and is talking to himself through a tape recorder!—but it’s less fun and less compelling, probably because so many TV dramas right now (from This Is Us to Westworld) are pulling off the same tricks.
The result is a mystery plot that seems inconsequential to the emotional one that’s taking place in Hays’s head over the course of four decades. He’s haunted by this case, but also of his experience in Vietnam, his failed relationship with his wife (played by Carmen Ejogo), and his slowly deteriorating mind. Mahershala Ali does prove himself to be the leading man Hollywood has yet to make him; as in his work in last year’s Green Book, he once again elevates mediocre material and turns it into something that closely resembles art. But the rest of it is muddied by dialogue that at times feels blisteringly campy (Mamie Gummer, who plays the missing children’s drug-addicted mother, twice mutters the line “I have the soul of a whore!” in a single scene) and hilariously self-aware (Hays makes comments about prison rape so often that Dorff’s West openly asks him what that’s all about).
HBO provided the season’s first five episodes to critics; perhaps the final three can turn it all around and tie its many loose ends together. But in a time when there’s too much TV, and plenty of options, I’m ready for a mystery series to hook me from the get-go—which is what True Detective accomplished when it premiered in 2014. Five years later, its legacy has changed television; True Detectives are now a dime a dozen. Season Three doesn’t exactly float to the top of the barrel.