TV Review: True Detective – Season 3

True Detective Season 3

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, Graham Gordy
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, Carmen Ejogo, Scoot McNairy
Directors: Jeremy Saulnier, Nic Pizzolatto, Daniel Sackheim

Review by Michael Walls Kelly

My partner’s a bit of a hunter himself.

It’s rare that the hype for a series that’s only aired two seasons can be accurately described as a rollercoaster. Lots of shows have a first season that’s well-received and then hit a sophomore slump. But True Detective’s first season was a commercial and critical hit, and its second season was almost instantly a meme-ified failure.

I’m of the opinion that the first season is really good, if over-hyped, and the second season is a failure, if generally under-valued. So far, season three has hit that sweet spot in between the two.

Season 3 premieres almost four years after the doomed second outing.  You can tell that the show is walking on eggshells. It feels like the network testing the waters and recalibrating what an audience wants based on their reactions from the other seasons.

Season 3 has a clear main character in Mahershala Ali’s Wayne Hays. He has a partner, Stephen Dorff’s Roland West, but it isn’t the McConaughey/Harrelson two-hander of season 1. It’s also stripped way back from the four protagonists in season 2. Gone is the second season’s convoluted storylines, political intrigue, double-crosses and shady deals. We’re back to a fairly straight-forward story about two children who go missing.

The only True Detective-like flourish that this season has kept — besides attracting solid talent — is multiple timelines. We see Hays at the beginning of the case, a decade later when new evidence comes to light, and in the present day, discussing the case for some kind of documentary. The timelines work well without spoiling each other by either revealing too much or not enough. Ali’s performance as Hays is stellar, and the old-age makeup for the present day timeline is impressively not terrible.

True Detective

Series creator Nic Pizzolatto is joined behind the scenes by some outside talent, presumably in the hopes of balancing him out. David Milch, of NYPD Blue and Deadwood fame, co-wrote the fourth episode and Graham Gordy co-wrote the sixth. Jeremy Saulnier (Blue RuinGreen Room) directs the first two episodes of the season (before departing due to creative differences, which absolutely put a damper on my excitement for this season) and his absence is definitely felt in the later entries. Saulnier doesn’t have as distinct a visual footprint as season 1’s Cary Joji Fukunaga. He’s still able to lay out the concept of the different timelines clearly and make the procedural aspects of the disappearance, which is a large chunk of the first episode, actually engaging.

I’ve always been a fan of the acting in True Detective, probably because I’m more forgiving due to the genre. The title of the series implies a pulpy atmosphere and Colin Farrell’s ridiculous gruffness and Vince Vaughn doing his best Cagney or Robinson work well within those parameters. Plus, you get some legitimately great performances, like McConaughey and Harrelson in season 1, or Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch in season 2. This season is anchored by Ali, which is a smart move. He’s a tremendous actor, and he’s remarkable at showing the progression of the character through the different timelines. Dorff seemed like an unexpected choice for the second lead. He delivers an easy, lived-in charm I haven’t seen from him before. There are also some fantastic actors as the parents of the missing children. Scoot McNairy, Mamie Gummer, and Carmen Ejogo’s character echoes to Hays throughout each timeline.

Ultimately I can’t help but be a little disappointed by the episodes I’ve seen. The storyline is interesting enough, and the characters are all fine and played by great actors… but there are only the slightest hints of the weirdness this show can truly deliver on. Who knows, maybe the final three episodes will go all-out (the Carcosa stuff was kind of background-ed in season 1 until later episodes), but so far it feels a little safe. It’s definitely entertaining. However, we never get something as bonkers as Colin Farrell lamenting that e-cigs make him feel like he’s sucking a robot’s dick.

Verdict: Watch it! This isn’t necessarily what I want True Detective to always be, but it’s entertaining pulp television. If season 3 is a success, my hopes are that they’ll feel free to dive into the water. Maybe it won’t be the full-on running cannonball that season 2 was, but a season 2 of True Detective is a rare thing, for good or ill.

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