True Detective has returned after several years following its much-maligned second season. Watching the latest season Sunday night was almost a surreal feeling, being pulled back into the world that felt so invigorating back when it first aired in 2014. Of course, like most people, my memory of the show varies greatly between the first season set in southern Louisiana and the second season set in California. The first two episodes of this season, set in Arkansas, elicit many of the same feelings I had upon viewing the show’s pilot five years ago. It’s dark, haunting, and slowly builds up great depth to not only its characters but also to the backdrop of southern rural America during the course of its three timelines. This story, much like that of season one’s, takes place across three separate timelines with decades in between. The opening of the case is set in 1980, with Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) being just a few years removed from the throws of the Vietnam War. The second timeline is set in 1990 and focuses on Hays being interviewed by a lawyer following the discovery of new evidence in what was thought to be a closed case. Finally, in 2015, an elderly Hays is being interviewed for a “true crime” television series. This sets up the arc of the series as past occurrences shed light on the aging Hays, while also providing a rich murder mystery to deconstruct at its center as the case unfolds in 1980.
This may all sound eerily similar to the show’s first season starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and that’s because, well, it is. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing; not at all. In fact, the show’s return to the south, to the mystery, and to resonating character development is simply exceptional. The show also brings back the vibe of a much more recent series in Sharp Objects, which was also a highly recommendable murder mystery series from HBO that aired last summer. It feels thrilling to be cast along the wave of this new series for the next couple months, reveling in the anticipation and intrigue as every episode gets thoroughly dissected on the internet and theories are passed around like hundred dollar bills. With the return of this show in the same alluring shape that I most fondly remembered, I can’t help but be truly giddy for the return of appointment television. Despite the overload of content flooding streaming platforms nowadays, there is something special and unique when a show like this comes along and takes audiences on a ride that spans across multiple months, providing for discussion and more importantly, anticipation.
With the first two episodes of True Detective‘s third season, the show has demanded our attention by presenting a story rich in setting, mood, and character. However, I do hold a couple reservations, the first of which being the accredited directors for the season. Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) directed each of the first two episodes and it shows. Saulnier does a mostly successful Fukanaga impression, that of the man who perfectly helmed the show’s entire first season. Saulnier was a big get for Pizzolatto, the show’s writer and creator, and he was initially set to direct the entire season but later backed down. Instead, for the remainder of the season, there will be a rotating cast of TV directors, including a couple episodes helmed by Pizzolatto himself. With this, it is very possible that we’ve already seen the best of the show’s attempted return to glory. Furthermore, I could envision a scenario in which this season’s story grows tired over the coming weeks if it starts to hit too many of the same beats as the show’s first season. Season one was carried by two outstanding actors performing at their best, elevating each other and the narrative itself by way of sheer likability and talent. In season three I feel that same energy coming from Ali’s performance. I loved Ali in his previous work like Luke Cage, Moonlight, and Green Book, but this is his best work yet. His commanding presence on screen leads to a dark, personal, and emotional narrative. We are lucky to watch one of the best and most exciting working actors for the next couple of months in the comfort of our living rooms. Unfortunately, I do not feel that same enthusiasm for Stephen Dorff, who plays Wayne’s partner in the 1980 timeline. Maybe he will come to surprise me, but my first impression is that I couldn’t care less about his character; he’s no Woody Harrelson. Luckily, the fleshed out supporting cast has my interest, namely Carmen Ejogo and Scoot McNairy. Of course, it’s fair to expect that in the coming weeks our feelings about the cast will change as our relationship with the characters evolves.
Amid all the disappointment with True Detective‘s second season and the warranted concern ahead of the show’s return nearly four years later, it is certainly a relief to know that the show we once grew to love has returned in a form that we can recognize and engage with. Once again, we can ponder, posit, and speculate, but most of all, we can be entertained and challenged, together. This was the magic of the now infamous first season of True Detective. The jury is still out on the show’s new season as it will no doubt take us through countless twists and turns around its grim narrative, but with the first two episodes providing much reason for excitement, we are sure to be a captivated jury for weeks to come.
True Detective Season 3 airs Sundays starting on January 13th at 9pmET on HBO