Review: The third season of "True Detective" is back to its roots

by Willem Gerrish | 1/22/19 2:30am

Here’s a disclaimer: the first season of “True Detective” is my favorite season of television ever made. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the first eight-episode iteration of HBO’s crime anthology series is a near-perfect evaluation of human character in the face of death, evil and chaos. Though the writing is at times heavy-handed and the subtle undercurrent of complicated mysticism never really comes to fruition, that first season is still an engrossing masterwork of intrigue and filmmaking. McConaughey and Harrelson give career-best performances, Nic Pizzolatto’s writing takes brilliant, unexpected turns, and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s sumptuous filmmaking pulls viewers into the Louisiana bayou and doesn’t let them go. After the first season’s final episode left me clutching my head in awed disbelief, I eagerly awaited the show’s second season, only to be left in utter disappointment.

HBO doubled down on stars for the second season, casting Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn in a new slate of episodes set in the fictional city of Vinci, California. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong after such a remarkable first effort, but Pizzolatto’s second season is a dull slog through a meandering plot that ends up somewhere between uselessness and pure boredom. The performances are solid (though Vince Vaughn is entirely unconvincing as a brooding mobster) but pale in comparison to McConaughey and Harrelson’s scintillating efforts, and the plot’s lack of direction leads to the feeling that it’s all just needless violence and depression. Notably absent is Fukunaga, who directed every episode of the first season and pulled off such remarkable set pieces, like the astounding six-minute, single-take tracking shot at the end of the first season’s fourth episode — an extended shot so tense and dynamic that it should be studied in film schools for generations. Without Fukunaga’s deft visual artistry, the world of the second season feels flat and lifeless, a quality that only piles on to the season’s well-established woes. 

After “True Detective” tanked so miserably in season two, the show seemed slated for oblivion. But last week, after a nearly four-year wait, the first two episodes of the third season aired on HBO, and “True Detective” has come waveringly back to life. 

If one of the second season’s biggest problems was its jarring complexity exacerbated by the casting of four main roles, Pizzolatto has gone in the opposite direction for his third season and whittled the characters down to one big star: Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali as Detective Wayne Hays. Much like McConaughey’s troubled Rustin Cohle of season one, Hays is a dark and contemplative officer who is clearly haunted by more than a few demons. And it’s not just Hays as a character who harkens back to the first season. While season one plays out over two time periods, this season plays out over three: 1980, 1990 and 2015. 

The first timeline tracks the primary details of this season’s crime: the disappearance of two young children in the depths of the Ozarks. Then, in 1990, Hays is deposed over a wrongful arrest lawsuit, and new details emerge that complicate the case from 10 years past. Finally, an elderly Hays speaks to a true-crime TV crew in 2015 and finds himself tortured by the lingering phantoms of a 35-year-old crime he can’t forget. These three prongs intertwine beautifully, with fluid visual transitions (the soft moonlight in 1980 hardens into a glaring TV spotlight in 2015) and alarming conversational segues (a young Hays turns to the camera and delivers the musings of his elder self). Just like the interview-and-memory format of the first season’s dual time periods, these interdecadal narrative shifts allow for the show’s harrowing picture to fill in from multiple nexuses, all leading to the dreadful pinpoint where everything fits together.

Of course, I’m speculating a bit here because I’ve only seen two of the third season’s eight episodes (the rest will unfold on a typical episode-a-week basis), but even so, the inkblots are already beginning to bleed toward each other. What I can say with confidence now is that the third season is a marked improvement on that dreadful sophomore effort. Though it is highly derivative of Pizzolatto’s first effort, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — after all, season one was a veritable masterpiece, so dressing it up in new clothes is still bound to make for some entertaining television. Furthermore, Ali’s acting is much nearer to peak-McConaissance greatness than anything that dribbled out of McAdams, Farrell, Vaughn or Kitsch. Ali’s eyes are the draw here, and they speak volumes. Evoking confidence, conflict and terror, these eyes are the inextricable link between three different versions of the same man. They’re the haunting motif of generations of personal demons. I commend Ali for conveying so much, often without speaking a word. 

Despite this welcome return to form for “True Detective,” I still have to hold my praise in check because the driving force behind season one’s legendary status is absent and sorely missed. Fukunaga continues to remain distanced from creator and writer Pizzolatto, and his disappearance from behind the camera has proven that he might very well be the only person capable of spinning Pizzolatto’s impressive but imperfect scripts into sheer cinematic rapture. The direction in season three is capable and the lighting continues to astound for its velveteen, three-dimensional textures, but there’s none of that extra subtlety and flair that Fukunaga infused into the show. In season one, the Louisiana setting was so masterfully evoked that it felt like a character of its own. Here, the Ozarks feel like nothingness, a grayscale background that could be swapped out for any other region of blue-collar American life and bare, spindly trees.  

Most of all, the first two episodes of this third season of “True Detective” show solid potential. With the reestablished elements of season one and the nuanced acting of Mahershala Ali, this season has set itself up to come much nearer to prestige television than the drivel of Pizzolatto’s second effort. That being said, much remains to be seen and heard for this season to prove itself, and without Fukunaga behind the camera, it would take something truly miraculous to match the formidable example of the first season. I am tentatively hopeful though, and I look forward to seeing what twists and turns Pizzolatto has in store for the final six episodes.