A review of the upcoming third season of True Detective, in five parts.
1. It’s borderline impossible to discuss True Detective without starting with the history of the show, so let’s just go ahead and do that. The first season was a revelation, a shooting star flashing across the night sky, ridden by Woody Harrelson and an early-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey, and yes, please do stop here to picture Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson riding a literal shooting star. There were justifiable quibbles about the ending and the explosion of Bleak Shows About Sad Cops Investigating Creepy Murders it spawned, but the former is subjective and the latter isn’t really the show’s fault. And even if it was, I mean, I’ll accept that in exchange that for all those scenes where Rust Cohle babbled about flat circles between slugs off a Lone Star tallboy. Remember how much fun we all had with those? Really, think back on it. Good times.
Then season two premiered and… yeah, not so much. There was organized crime and creepy sex cults and Colin Farrell had a red-haired kid and there was the whole “Vince Vaughn hallucinates his way through the desert for like 10 minutes as he succumbs to stab wounds and at one point there are apparitions of mean teens for some reason?” thing. I don’t know, man. It was not great. The less said about it the better.
So the question here is: Can True Detective, in its third season, recover from those missteps to re-discover the magic spark that made the first go-round so fun?
2. Well, no.
3. But let’s focus on the good for a minute. This new season stars Mahershala Ali and I am very pleased to report that Mahershala Ali still rules. He ruled in Moonlight and he ruled in the first season of Luke Cage and he even ruled in House of Cards, somehow. Here, he rules across three separate timelines as an Arkansas detective named Wayne Hays. Hays is kind of a mess, a war veteran with a skill for tracking, a heavy drinker whose life gets consumed by a troubling case, and later, an old man with memory issues whose life is now re-consumed with a troubling case. The story jumps back and forth between the timelines to slowly reveal itself, one crumb at a time. You can tell the timeline has switched mostly because his hairstyle changes. You knew that, though. You’ve seen television shows before.
About this case. Many years ago, two children left home on their bicycles and never returned. Their father — played by Scoot McNairy, with a truly righteous mustache — calls the cops and the investigation begins. Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), show up to try to get to the bottom of it. This does not go super well. And it proceeds to go worse — for Hays, mostly, both professionally and personally, as his marriage to his crime writer wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) bends sharply under the strain — as each timeline plays out and new evidence is introduced.
Ali does great work with what often feels like derivative storytelling. Watch him walk into a room. Watch him choose his words carefully. Watch him play it cool on the surface while a fire rages inside him as his partner tunes up a potential suspect. Part of it is the way he carries himself, naturally; part is just skill. Like I said, the guy is good in everything, even when the thing he’s in isn’t that good. There are about a million roles I want to see him play as soon as possible. Like, would I watch a remake of Get Shorty with Mahershala Ali in the Travolta role? Hell yes, I would. Maybe not our — or his — top priority, but still something worth mentioning to any Hollywood producer you know or can get in contact with.