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True Detective’s Muted Season 3 Will Make You Appreciate the Insanity of Season 2

Few people will make it all the way to the grave defending the second season of HBO’s True Detective, but I promise you that I will be one of them. The sophomore season of showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series will stand as one of the notorious TV letdowns of the Peak TV era. It was a colossal commercial and critical failure that, for a couple of years, threw the future of the series into serious question.

But in a more generous reading, the season’s willful incoherence and outrageous stylization at least offered something that felt singular and eminently entertaining, especially if you put aside trying to rigorously trace the details of the plot. It would have made sense for Pizzolatto to try and reframe the tone and concept of his runaway hit of a first season by using different locations, famous actors, and time periods; instead, he foregrounded Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell’s largely motivationless portrayals of sleazy meatballs and reified an invented cesspool of a California city like an ill-defined sci-fi universe. Inept and powerless against fate, Season 2’s characters were absurdist outgrowths of many decades’ worth of busted B- and-C-movie noir antiheroes and archetypes. The decadence suggested Pizzolatto might have been hoping to make a series anthologizing different types of detective stories, rather than just different detective stories. But, as the writer himself put it in a recent press conference, he quickly “learned and understood there was a lot of stuff in Season 2 that people hadn’t really wanted to see.”

Just as  J.J. Abrams’ lean, fan-friendly The Force Awakens attempted to reclaim the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas’ congested, CGI-slathered prequel films of the early 2000s, True Detective Season 3 functions partially as an apology for Season 2’s indulgences. (Call Rick Springfield’s ghoulish plastic surgeon character Jar Jar Binks.) Pizzolatto overstuffed Season 2 episodes with seamy characters, ghastly sets, silly sex, and plenty of would-be hardass one-liners that read like Mickey Spillane high off a few cans of Monster Energy drink. Season 3, which premieres this Sunday, drastically tamps down on all of these inclinations. It’s mild even compared to the show’s vaunted first season, featuring fewer mystic college-dorm-room-tapestry mutterings, ominous aerial shots, and even subterranean orchestral swells.

Nonetheless, the new True Detective is, in so many ways, the same as the old True Detective. Two partners in a small-town police department—here, pensive Arkansas police detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his affable and relatively non-descript partner Roland West (Steven Dorff)—attempt to solve a grotesque crime. Meanwhile, the unlikely pair are forced to come to terms with their own missteps during their initial investigation in the early 1980s, both in real time and as others intercede to re-examine their work (here, in the ‘90s and 2010s, respectively). Hays and West are forced to acknowledge that they may have overlooked things and let their own private fears and psychoses distort their judgment.

As with the first season, this one is a long process of teasing sordid facts into the light, and never in a temporally straightforward fashion. At one point, a character quotes a passage from Einstein’s writing about the illusory nature of time, as if Pizzolatto is taking the heavily-memed “time is a flat circle” from Season 1 back to its source text and jabbing his finger indignantly at the page. The most interesting thing about the True Detective series has always been the way it tells stories, not the stories it tells. In Season 1, that story ultimately turned out to be at least half salvia-trip mumbo jumbo, while Season 2 was basically a Pynchonian shaggy-dog story. With Season 3, Pizzolatto focuses on deceptive storytelling and strong acting, with the crime narrative itself sometimes feeling hardly there at all. By the end of the first five episodes screened to critics, there are still no credible suspects on the table and relatively little information intriguing enough to promote speculation.

Season 3 is less modest than Season 1 only in its more dizzying approach to intertwining multiple timelines. The investigations begin to blur together as the show unfolds. Glimpses of the ‘80s and ‘90s investigations sometimes read like the older Hays’ idealized imaginings of his past self, rather than an objective rendering of what happened. The season’s more interesting narrative device turns out to be arguably its most irritating, at least in terms of its relevance to modern cultural trends. A hungry young true-crime documentarian confronts the 70-year-old Wayne, who is struggling with the early stages of dementia, with new evidence about his own investigation. The holes in Hays’ memory result in everything from blackouts to waking dreams of Vietnamese soldiers, a surreal scene which feels something out of a Samuel Beckett one-man play. In sections like these, Pizzolatto actually takes a chance or two, lapsing into dramatic modes the show hasn’t previously attempted.  

True Detective Season 3
Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) CREDIT: Warrick Page

Amidst all this formal joyriding, Pizzolatto spends a lot of time trying to sell these characters’ life stories and psychologies as realistic. Here, he indulges moments of subtlety in which he seemed uninterested in Season 2. He devotes most of his efforts to Hays and his love interest/future wife, schoolteacher and aspiring author Amalia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo). Ultimately, though, Pizzolatto and his team don’t fare much better with fleshing out female characters than they have in past seasons. Despite her convincing performance, Ejogo’s character feels like she exists mostly to illuminate aspects of Ali’s character. Her obsessive professional interest in the case, which becomes a major source of tension between them, feels dramatically unjustified. Their banter and flirtation, especially during the drawn-out courtship, sometimes reads like a man’s imaginings of an idealized, sensually charged date with a woman who is more intelligent than him. “I can see you being a real dog,” she sneers provocatively; elsewhere, there’s a half-facetious joke about California being “all steers and queers.” If there’s some revelatory intention to this banter, it’s lost on me.

Imbalances like this only emphasize the way in which this production leaves a very wide runway for Ali, the clear main attraction here. He is perfect for a noir-styled project, the kind of actor who can exalt even a trivial tough-guy scene into the realm of the metaphorical. The show’s real twists are in his performance, not Pizzolatto’s script. Ali both deflects attention away from, and manages to sell, the snippets of overzealous pith that McConaughey once muttered until they became memes. (Dorff one-liners like “I mean, everybody’s fucking something,” on the other hand, are left to dangle uncomfortably.) His tacit reactions to the casual racism of a suspect or a co-worker are more powerful than the scenes where characters specifically debate it. A brief discussion between Dorff and Ali nudges the viewer a bit too deliberately during a scene about police protocols around self-defense, which comes after a visit to a trailer park of all-black residents. Most importantly, Ali’s portrayal of Hays as a septuagenarian is surprisingly convincing. The show’s 2010s timeline is its riskiest element, and ultimately the most essential to making the season feel like a unique exercise. Ali creates a resonant image of a person who has been chasing the same windmill his whole life, searching for a solution to a question he can only sometimes remember.

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The aged Hays. CREDIT: Warrick Page

Ultimately, the more hackneyed plot devices of True Detective Season 3 are no different than those that plague almost every gritty, Netflix-ready police procedural. There are missing or dead children. The department higher-ups immediately choose their suspicious-looking, disenfranchised suspect, but the shrewder detective (the truer one, you might say) looks elsewhere. Perhaps he notices a person seemingly above reproach or in a position of power, or a mole in his own department. In the course of the true detective’s inquiry, he will be forced to chuck the proverbial rulebook aside. Wary of overstepping, his more level-headed partner will tell him off for his “big fucking mouth” and accuse him of not caring about anyone but himself.

All of this and so much more is here in True Detective Season 3. If you love seeing these sorts of control variables get dressed up in funny new suits and wigs against new desolate and suggestive vistas, you will enjoy Pizzolatto’s third movement. If you are looking for a crime series to reinvent its genre, or something as feral and unapologetic as Season 2, you might be disappointed, and decide to returning to binging more gripping and uncanny European cop shows on your favorite streaming platform.