The biggest struggle that a third season of True Detective was ever going to have was in toeing the line between reattaining its previous glory and running the risk of becoming a legacy act, doomed to play out the greatest hits from its one good album in perpetuity. With three years having passed since the much maligned second season of the show, it’s been long enough for the wounds to heal and for people to genuinely get excited about what Nic Pizzolato can do by revisiting the show’s original stomping grounds, with an actor of the same caliber and stature as Matthew McConaughey, and a deference to the tone and themes that made us fall in love with the show in the first place. The question is whether or not viewers actually want more of the same, or if there’s no winning for Pizzolatto.
The reasons for season 2’s failures are too many to go into here, but in short, I always felt as if they were bred from the hindsight backlash to the first season. As much as season 1 was beloved by viewers and critics alike, that reverence also came with some well-intended criticism about Pizzolatto’s treatment of the show’s scarce female characters, or it’s faux spirituality and hand-waving of anything remotely supernatural that first season chose to tackle. Of course all about that is up for debate (a show can be about male lead characters, and it can choose not to explain in the inexplicable), but Pizzolatto seemed to take it way too hard, shoehorning commentary about that and other things that didn’t go his way into the second season’s choices. But one could argue that the quality of that second season was also due to lack of time or burnout (it barely took a year for HBO to produce the second season) or possibly the absence of the guiding hand of a visionary director such as Cari Fukunaga.
Season 3 directly tackles these mistakes, but one has to wonder if Pizzolatto swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. In fact, these first two episodes of season 3, “The Great War and Modern Memory” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, almost feel like an homage to the first season. It’s a character driven macabre crime story with hints of the supernatural led by an impeccable A-list performance, set in the moody, hazy deep south. There are multiple timelines, wisecracking buddy cop dynamics, comments about the fluid nature of time, dynamic overhead shots of Arkansas wilderness, unreliable narrators, recognizable character actors in supporting roles (in this case the likes of Stephen Dorf and Scoot McNairy), references to Lovecraft and other horror-tinged literature… all that’s really missing is an epic six-plus minute tracking shot, but the season is still young.
To be more specific, this third season of True Detective follows Wayne Hays (played, as mentioned, impeccably, by Mahershela Ali), an Arkansas detective haunted by the 1980 disappearance of two young siblings. By the end of the first episode, he discovers the boy dead, strewn out in ceremonial fashion in a cave. The second, a girl, is long presumed dead, until we find out ten years later while Hays is being deposed regarding the case and the potential false incarceration of the suspect he inevitably finds ten years prior, that she is indeed alive, after her fingerprints show up in a string of robberies. Twenty-five years later, Hays is old, slowly losing his memory and being interviewed about the case for a true crime reality show (cutely called “True Criminal”), still haunted by the case he never solved.
As expected, the show is littered with imagery and references borrowed from Lovecraft, Chambers and others, to the point where one has to wonder whether or not season 3 might actually be directly connected to season 1. The figurines left in the park where they find the boy are very reminiscent to the ones found in the first season. The story is also told from the perspective of an unreliable narrative, but in added twist, at two different times. In 1990, Hays, shown slightly older with a tighter haircut and having married and started a family with the school teacher he meets ten years prior (played by Carmen Ejogo), claims he still remembers all the details of the case and gets upset when he’s contradicted by those deposing him. In 2015, however, he’s older, needs audio and visual cues to remind him of things, as well as his now deceased wife’s first book on his case, and the second episode even ends on him waking up on the cross street of the children’s home, only to find it burnt to ashes.
Mahershela Ali sells this bill of goods in all three timelines with an impeccable, nuanced performance. You feel with his character when he finds the first child, you’re angry with him in the future, confused about what’s really going on 25 years later. It’s probably unfair to say that Pizzolatto is copying his own greatest hits because of how much Ali lives and breathes this character. And to boot, Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) provides excellent direction in these two first episodes as first in line among this season’s new contributors (the others being David Milch, one of the only other credited writers for the season, and Daniel Sackheim, who is credited with directing every forthcoming episode that Pizzolatto didn’t do himself). It seems as if such a talented group of people would be remiss to repeat the mistakes that were made with season 2, or to veer the show too far into that dreaded greatest hits territory. Because as much as aspects of these episodes reminded me of the first season, I was at no point bored or offended by what I saw as a retread. In fact, I could see how that could slot into something bigger, akin to an extended cinematic universe, which would be a major step up from a second season that felt as if it didn’t belong.
All of this begs the question; did I like these two first episodes of the new True Detective because it was reminiscent of something I remember loving, because it was step up from a previous rock bottom, or because it stands as something good all on its own? Honestly, the answer is probably some combination of the three. It’s questionable whether that’s enough anymore in a 2019 television landscape that demands more than stories from the brooding male POV, but at a time of the year where not a lot of great TV is dropping, and in an environment where True Crime and its ilk still rules detective media, it’s certainly feels like it’s filling a need. But, again, that might be the True Detective season 1 fan in me talking. We’ll have to wait and see how it comes together, but for now, the premiere of True Detective season 3 gets 8 true crime novels out of 10.