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.
4. So then, the problem. Remember how I said the thing about derivative storytelling? Yeah. At a certain point I stopped taking notes to use for a real review and just started making a list of the season one hits that Nic Pizzolatto and crew appear to be playing again. Examples:
- Creepy murder of a child
- Creepy occult stuff surrounding the murder
- Creepy dolls
- Story told across timelines using flashbacks from formal questioning
- Two cops chatting about deep issues while driving
- Hard-drinking sad cops who hate the world
- Overhead shots of highways
- Creepy guy in town who drives an odd form of transportation
- Creepy drawings in kids room reveals potential clue
And that’s just through the first three episodes of the five released to critics. (I stopped there because I might want to write about the show on a weekly basis and I don’t want to burden my poor brain with too much future knowledge.) It’s kind of like the creative staff — Pizzolatto, mostly, with an assist from David Milch — said “How do we get back the good juju from season one?” and decided the answer was “Let’s just do a lot of the stuff from season one but with Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff.”
Which, fine. I can respect that, in a way. Take a foundation that worked and try to build a new structure on it. The problem is that, as with me and my running list (which has been cut down to remove spoilers), the similarities could be enough to take you out of it. Or, at least, they could prevent the show from creating the thrilling experience of the first time. If you go to a magic show and the guy cuts his assistant in half, that could be cool. If you go to see him a few years later and he does the exact same trick with a new assistant, it loses some of its luster, even if the new assistant rules. There’s a chance you read that and pictured the magician hiring Mahershala Ali as his new assistant and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali walking out in silence to get cut in half by a C-list local magician, given what I’m trying to say here. Do not picture this. It would actually be very cool and impressive and definitely better and it just devastates my analogy. People would be so confused. “Is… is that Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali in that box?” Dammit, now you’re picturing it, aren’t you? Crap. Well, the point still stands. Sort of.
5. The main takeaway here is that the third season of True Detective is not quite up to the level of the first, so far, in large part because substantial hunks of its plot come off like a store brand version of the original. It is so much better than the second season, though. So, so much better. Remember how Rachel McAdams played a main character for the entire season and was never given a character trait deeper than “is freaking wicked at knives”? Remember when Colin Farrell was investigating the creepy sex cult with no backup and a dude in a bird mask walked right in and blasted him at point-blank range with a shotgun at the end of one episode and at the beginning of the next episode we found out he survived? (I know I just said we should try to avoid discussing it all again but, dammit, now I’m mad.)
So, yeah. Not exactly a huge hurdle to clear there, as far as improving on the last one. And parts of this look solid or at least promising. But I worry this — the rest of this season, the legacy of the show, in general — is all going to come down to whether Mahershala Ali can carry this season across the finish line with the rest of the show on his back. However, if anyone can, it’s him.
Season three of ‘True Detective’ premieres Sunday, January 13 on HBO.