'True Detective' Needs to Shake Up Its Formula for Season 3

If HBO and creator Nic Pizzolatto want to do another season, a different playbook would help.
HBO

HBO has said it would be happy to air another season of True Detective if creator Nic Pizzolatto wants to write one. Pizzolatto has said in past interviews that he's kicked around ideas for season three but can't see himself doing much more than that.

Negative critical reception aside, the show draws an audience — 12 million people per week across all of HBO's platforms, according to programming head Michael Lombardo. So it's a good bet the series will be back in 2016 or '17.

If and when that happens, it would serve the show well to rethink its formula.

The cases and characters in seasons one and two were different, but the arc of both stories played out in a similar way: The first couple episodes introduced the characters and their worldviews and a gruesome murder; a big set piece midway through the season that changes the dynamic of the show, followed by a jump forward in time; the heroes marshaling their forces for what seems like an impossible battle against entrenched, powerful interests; and the final battle itself, which ends on, at best, a bittersweet note.

Although season two doubled the number of lead characters and offered up a case much wider in scope — or at least one that put the power players working against the heroes more in the foreground — it still adhered to that basic outline, and it did the show no favors.

Season two was probably always doomed to be compared negatively to season one. In 2014, True Detective arrived with a huge bang, with fantastic performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and a fractured narrative structure that reinvigorated the longform crime story, underwhelming ending or no.

This year had problems of its own making: a bad match between Vince Vaughn and the character he played, overly mannered dialogue and a case so convoluted it inspired explanatory pieces running to the thousands of words. But following the same basic storytelling arc as its predecessor only made the comparison that much easier for critics and viewers, and that was a recipe for disappointment.

So what would be great from a third season of True Detective? A few things.

1. Find a different arc. Both seasons have followed a pretty well-worn structure, with the big action set pieces midway through the equivalent of an Act 2 twist in a traditional hourlong cop show. Next time out, a different entry point — starting in the midst of an ongoing case, maybe, or, in these constantly filmed times, having the detectives try to sort out conflicting accounts of an incident from the many cell-phone videos.

Pizzolatto could still explore his pet themes of the corrupting influence of power and the conflicted lives his protagonists lead, but it would give the audience a different experience.

2. Simplify, at least a little. Whatever else season one of True Detective may have had going for it, it also had the advantage of a relatively straightforward murder story: Young women were being killed in strange ways. There were intimations of a conspiracy behind the murders, but it was a fairly straight line from victims to killers. Season two ... was not that.

3. Give the bad guys a face. Season two in particular was so wrapped up in the notion of a corrupt network of powerful men that it was hard to discern just who viewers should want to see brought to justice. The Vinci cops and mayor? The money-grubbing attorney general? The head of Catalyst? The Russian gangster? None of them stood out enough on their own to lend real urgency to bringing the case to a close.

That's not to suggest True Detective should become a black hat-white hat procedural. Its lead characters could still operate in the vast gray area between right and wrong — but unless viewers have a clear idea of what they're working toward (or against), that gray area is just so much fog.

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