'True Detective' Season 3: TV Review

Definitely better than the muddled second season.

Nic Pizzolatto's American gothic anthology series returns to HBO as a strong Arkansas-set showcase for Mahershala Ali that still struggles to make its central mystery compelling.

HBO's True Detective went from cultural sensation to entrenched meme to object of backlash to muddled afterthought in almost record time. Do you think Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams could even tell you that they were in a True Detective season, much less explain how that convoluted second installment, which aired back in the ancient history of 2015, ended?

Fortunately for series mastermind Nic Pizzolatto, time remains a flat circle and cycles of forgetfulness and nostalgia move with comparable alacrity. Given a 3.5-year respite to either go fallow or diminish expectations, True Detective returns to HBO in January with a third season that may be hailed as a full comeback by those with a short memory, but actually falls into that vast middle ground as less nuanced and rich than the start of the first season yet still in most ways superior to whatever you've been trying to repress about the second. At the very least, the new True Detective season is a three-tiered showcase for Mahershala Ali, who stays consistently mesmerizing even if the mystery around him does not.

Although the True Detective identity was initially cemented as an investigative two-hander — hence any photo featuring an unlikely pairing earning the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 hashtag — make no mistake: The third season belongs entirely to Ali, rendering much of the ensemble and the plot relating to them beside the point.

Ali plays Wayne Hays, a detective with the Arkansas state police. His worldview shaped by a lifetime facing racial injustice and years serving as a long-range reconnaissance tracker in Vietnam, Wayne has personal demons, but also a chummy friendship with partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). The detectives are pushed to their limits when they're called in on a case involving a pair of missing children, an investigation that initially involves the kids' parents (Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer), as well as a Native American scrap metal collector (Michael Greyeyes' Woodard), another tortured Vietnam veteran whose outsider status brings out the worst in the community. Both the crime and Wayne attract the attention of Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a teacher and aspiring writer.

The inquiry and subsequent ramifications play out over three time periods: the initial aftermath; a reopening of the investigation and its errors a decade later; and then, nearly 25 years after that, while Wayne is being interviewed about the case for a TV documentary (Sarah Gadon is wasted as its director), a tortured walk down memory lane complicated by Wayne's dementia. It's fairly easy to distinguish between periods based on haircuts and occasional fashion notes, with Pizzolatto preferring to emphasize the natural complications of storytelling, the filters of prejudice, assumption and, ultimately, memory through which we pick versions of the truth that we can live with. Presumably, there's an absolute truth to Wayne and Roland's case, but through occasional malice, occasional ineptitude and sometimes even mislaid best intentions, that truth becomes more diffuse. It is, in many ways, a series of chronological misdirections comparable with the first True Detective season, and because he can't repeat that "flat circle" line, Pizzolatto introduces Amelia teaching her class Robert Penn Warren's poem "Tell Me a Story" with the key line "The name of the story will be Time/ But You must not pronounce its name." Pizzolatto's lack of subtlety evoking a poem urging a subtle articulation of time makes for one of the Pizzolatto-iest moments.

Both of the first two seasons ran through wild misdirects and red herrings en route to shrugs of surrender rather than solutions. Through five of the new season's eight episodes, the core mystery is, if anything, too simple. Here, the obfuscations of narrative circuitousness keep you guessing more than Pizzolatto's normal rogue's gallery of evidence or thematic murkiness. Maybe the oblique mentions of religious cults, pedophile rings, the Paradise Lost-style teen Satanist paranoia and the creepy faceless poppets will eventually pay off — or maybe they're all just distracting ephemera.

Missing kids aside, in each time frame, Wayne's primary conflict is internal. In the first, it's the experiences of racism and war that he wants to forget; in the last, it's the entirety of a life he can't remember; and in between, it's about his own willingness to fight with the institutions that kept justice elusive a decade earlier. In each situation, there's a price to Wayne being too demonstrative, whether it's the potential loss of a job, the potential loss of a wife and family or the potential loss of autonomy and privacy. The marvel of Ali's performance is that he's always holding something in and you rarely lose track of the anger or confusion being sublimated. It also has the effect of making you pay more attention to Ali and his reactions than to his scene partners, who are all solid, if underdeveloped. That McNairy gives his grieving, boozy father depth beyond what's on the page isn't surprising, nor is Dorff's gruff, wise-cracking turn, though it's been a long time since he's had this much to do or this opportunity to show authority.

Pizzolatto's struggle with female characters remains a point of real frustration. He opened up his writing process this time to David Milch, though the fourth episode is the only one with Milch as credited co-writer and the only hour in which spotting the Deadwood and NYPD Blue legend's fingerprints is anything more than wishful thinking. A better idea might have been to spend time with a Veena Sud (Seven Seconds) or especially a Marti Noxon, since the interplay of murder investigation and time-slipping narrative basically made Sharp Objects feel like True Detective through a female perspective. Instead, Ejogo does her best reconciling Amelia's couple of thin characteristics and at least forges moderate heat with Ali, while Gummer deserves some sort of award, or at least extra credit, for finding the frayed intensity of a woman who implausibly wails things like, "I've got the soul of a whore!"

Turgid utterances like that are what make some viewers break out in hives when it comes to True Detective as a brand, and these episodes don't stray far. Although Wayne and Roland banter and Wayne and Amelia flirt, it's low on humor, and even when Pizzolatto has things on his mind — the Vietnam backstories for several characters call to mind Cinemax's superior, short-lived Quarry — the somber atmospherics dominate his ideas. At least the show does that well, getting real dividends from the decision to shoot on location in Arkansas. Especially in the Jeremy Saulnier-directed opening episodes, there's a texture to the Ozarks setting, with its haunting rural beauty and haunted blue-collar decay, that you can't get in suburban Atlanta, no matter how lucrative the tax credits. It remains to be seen what Pizzolatto has to say of value about this region stretching over 30-plus years or if it's just a variation on American gothic standards.

It sometimes takes shows five or 10 years to show you their best and worst sides, but True Detective arrives for a third installment seeming to have already established its peaks and valleys. As a vehicle for actors and mood, few shows are better, and with Ali front and center, the new season is easy to get interested in, despite a lackluster mystery that may make it a struggle to stay interested.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, Carmen Ejogo, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Scoot McNairy, Josh Hopkins, Michael Greyeyes, Jon Tenney, Sarah Gadon.

Creator: Nic Pizzolatto

Airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, premiering Sunday, Jan. 13.