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.