In Season 3, HBO’s ‘True Detective’ Finally Gets a Clue

A show returns to critical-darling status...if you can forgive Stephen Dorff's wig.

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Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali star in HBO's "True Detective."

When Season 1 of HBO’s detective anthology series True Detective debuted in January 2014, you would have thought the critics had a religious experience based on their ecstatic reviews. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two Louisiana homicide detectives on a 17-year hunt for a serial killer, the show became a huge ratings hit, mixing psychology, classism and the occult within that state’s cultural and physical landscape. It also further solidified McConaughey’s rebirth as a serious actor following a string of vapid rom-coms.

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For those living under a rock during that ballyhooed first season, the series centers on detectives trying to solve a murder mystery. Currently, the third season is airing. In addition to its gumshoe narrative, the series is noted for its stellar casts. These are often comprised of highly acclaimed A-list actors willing to forego their names on the marquee for roles in a prestige series that will reward them with the kind of nuanced writing and character development often lacking in contemporary movies.

Unfortunately, the early momentum of True Detective petered out after the premiere of Season 2 in June 2015. With Colin Farrell as a grizzled, burnt-out detective, Vince Vaughan as a criminal-entrepreneur (an oxymoron?) and Rachel McAdams as another detective with some serious daddy issues and a fascination with knives (don’t ask), the season was an embarrassing fiasco. Set in some sleepy town an hour away from LA, the plot revolved around municipal corruption and the murder of a city official. To say the writing was excruciating is an understatement. Forget waterboarding: force terror suspects to watch Season 2 of True Detective and 30 minutes into the first episode they’ll blab where they stashed the bomb.

That season reeked so bad, many critics and fans wondered whether True Detective’s showrunner-writer Nic Pizzolatto had lost his magical touch. With no plans to re-up the series, speculation mounted that HBO was cancelling it. Then came word in August 2017 that the network finally greenlighted Season 3.

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Now that the cobwebs are off, Season 3, which premiered Jan. 13, offers good news. While it doesn’t reach the dizzying artistic heights of Season 1, it’s not an abject failure. Except for some pacing issues in the beginning, it’s an absorbing effort that redeems the show’s creator. Pizzolatto wrote most of the current eight-episode series except for two episodes, which he co-wrote with veteran TV writer David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) and Graham Gordy, respectively.

Perhaps it was this collaboration — and intense HBO scrutiny — that compelled Pizzolatto to rein in the narrative excesses that marred Season 2. Interestingly, Pizzolatto seems to return to the formula that made Season 1 a hit (spoiler alert now follows). Taking place in the Ozarks over three different time periods, the story zooms in on two missing children who are also siblings. The brother is found murdered while there’s no sign of the sister anywhere. Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) is hot on the trail of trying to find out what happened to the girl. Yet, every time he gets closer to a clue, he and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), come up short. And yes, like the inaugural season, this one teems with religious overtones, political corruption and classism. The latter is represented by a rich, powerful family who may or may not have orchestrated the crime at the center of the drama.

The girl’s disappearance is a mystery that consumes Hays over the next 35 years. Even as an elderly man, racked by early-onset dementia, he still can’t shake off the case that may have resulted in the derailment of both his career and marriage.

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As Hays, Ali — who won his second Oscar for the film Green Book — is commanding and charismatic. He’s especially good in heartbreaking moments, such as when the old, ailing Hays struggles to resolve this case while his memory fails him. Scenes like these nearly make up for some of Ali’s Method mumbling.

Dorff — who seemed groomed for leading-man film stardom 25 years ago, before sliding into character roles — matches Ali in power and ability. If their chemistry is not nearly as combustible as the McConaughey and Harrelson duo from Season 1, both work well together. One highlight is how Ali and Dorff’s characters interact over the three different time periods: 1980, when Hays was a hotshot detective on the rise; 1990, when Hays is sidelined, eclipsed by West for some inexplicable reason we’ve yet to learn; and in 2015 when Hays reaches out to West, who is now a curmudgeonly and alcoholic hermit, doting on his myriad dogs.

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Other than Ali’s mumbling and the sluggish pacing of the first two episodes, my main quibble about Season 3 is cosmetic: Dorff’s horrendous ’80s-style wig. It’s a disheveled blond-Beatle mop genetically crossed with a dead squirrel. Created to show the younger incarnation of Dorff’s character, it’s unfortunately distracting; it also makes him look older than when Dorff sports his naturally receding hairline for the 1990 sequences. Dorff does triumph over this tonsorial disaster, but it’s difficult to tear your eyes away from that rug.

Another weak spot: the relationship between Hays and Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a teacher and aspiring writer. They meet in 1980; later they marry. I’m not sure if it’s lack of chemistry or that Amelia is underwritten, but their scenes tend to flag. It also doesn’t help that Amelia, who by 1990 has become a successful author, doesn’t conjure up a lot of sympathy. While writing a book on the case that has been Hays’ fixation, Amelia comes across as an opportunist who profits from other people’s pains.

Season 3 of True Detective is not the water cooler conversational fare that Season 1 was, but it does traffic in a familiar formula: an isolated rural landscape overrun with hidden secrets and political corruption rooted in power and money. If you can ignore some elements (and turn up the volume when Ali speaks), you may find it riveting.