'True Detective': All the Changes for Season 3

The HBO anthology harkens back to its first installment with a new mystery but a similar structure.
Warrick Page/HBO
Stephen Dorff (left) and Mahershala Ali in 'True Detective'

True Detective returns to HBO Sunday for its third season — one that looks and feels substantially different from its second installment back in 2015, but shares a number of elements with the first season.

That second season, though successful from a ratings standpoint, soured some critics and fans of the show. For season three of the anthology, creator Nic Pizzolatto is returning to some of the pieces that made the first one stand out: an off-the-beaten-path setting, a time-spanning narrative structure and sharply drawn central characters.

"The two things that stand out year to year are the strength of the characters involved and the location, which is always a pivotal part of the storytelling," executive producer Scott Stephens, who has worked on all three seasons, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Here's a rundown of what's different about season three, as well as a few things that remain untouched.

What's Different

It's as much character study as mystery. Yes, there's a case to be solved, and yes, it takes a number of twists and turns over the five episodes HBO sent out for review. The core of the new season, however, is the life of Wayne Hays (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), a Vietnam veteran and Arkansas state police detective. Hays works the case in 1980 and revisits it in 1990 and again in 2015, when he's grappling with the onset of dementia. The investigation is a catalyst to examine how Hays' life plays out and his struggle to retain his memories of that life.

The race factor. Pizzolatto originally wrote Hays as a white man, but after Ali saw the scripts he successfully lobbied to play the lead role. Hays' race introduces a new element to the series, whose previous two seasons have been populated almost exclusively by white characters. Hays' race is not always central to the story, but it's also never far from the surface, as conveyed often through Ali's tightly coiled performance.

It's less lurid. Without revealing any major plot points, it's safe to say season three doesn't linger on moments of violence or its aftermath the way the first two seasons sometimes did. What viewers see of the central crime scene is disturbing, but not graphic. Hays and his romantic partner, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), have a vigorous — if not entirely healthy — sex life, but there's next to no sexposition or gratuitous nudity in the first five episodes.

What's Not

Multiple timelines. "By design, we leaned back into some of the structure elements that worked in season one," said Stephens. Season one also followed its characters at three points in time — 1995, 2002 and 2012 — but the first two eventually dropped off as the story caught up to its present. Through five episodes of season three, the 1980, 1990 and 2015 timelines are on roughly equal footing. "Everything from season one that repeats in season three, I think we take it to a deeper, more meaningful execution," said Stephens.

An out-of-the-way setting. Season three is set in and was filmed on location in northwest Arkansas, not far from where Pizzolatto attended graduate school at the University of Arkansas. Like the Louisiana bayou in season one, the Ozarks aren't a frequently filmed location, and they help establish a firm sense of place for True Detective. "We got to shoot things that have never really been photographed for television before," said Stephens.

The examination of masculinity. It's a favorite subject of Pizzolatto's, both in True Detective and in some of his other writing. There's more than just alpha-male conflict in the new season, with Ali playing Hays as a man haunted by his past and uncertain of his present; Stephen Dorff as Roland West, Hays' glib partner who's also a savvy political player; and Scoot McNairy as the grieving father of the two kids who go missing.

True Detective premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13 on HBO.