Series Review

'True Detective' back on track in season 3

Don't be put off by the dismal second season; the third standalone instalment of this detective drama promises to be well worth watching

27 January 2019 - 00:00
By tymon smith AND Tymon Smith
Mahershala Ali, left, and Stephen Dorff in 'True Detective' season 3.
Image: Supplied Mahershala Ali, left, and Stephen Dorff in 'True Detective' season 3.

When HBO's True Detective debuted its first season in 2014, it was - seemingly unbelievably, considering that it was only five years ago - a different time in the TV universe. The series space was still dominated by episode shows, and the binge-watching, oversaturated era of peak TV was close on its heels but hadn't quite taken over yet.

Creator Nic Pizzolatto's murky, bayou-situated, slow-burning psychological noirish investigation of the long-reaching emotional effects of a decades-unsolved murder in the swamps of the American South on its two detective protagonists drew viewers in with its eerie Handsome Family opening theme, compelling performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and a twisty plot full of red herrings, creepy characters and multiple time shifts.

The tension and mystery were carefully racked up in each episode, leaving plenty for viewers to speculate on around the water cooler at work in the weeks in between episodes.

When it came time for the follow-up, Pizzolatto's decision to make each season of the show a standalone investigation not linked to any other seemed like a welcome creative choice.

However, the show's sophomore season in 2015, while suitably true to the murky atmosphere and tone of its debut, was a narrative mess. It tried too hard to pull its overly complex and underdeveloped stories together and relying excessively on its looks, a fuzzy Colin Farrell performance and a miscast villainous Vince Vaughn to smooth over its deficiencies. It was all a little too substandard David Lynch imitation and less of the original quietly burning fire that had garnered so much attention and acclaim.

Responses were divided and Pizzolatto tried his best to defend the credibility of his second season's all-style-no-content LA noir before quietly disappearing with his tail between his legs.

For three years the online rumour mill ran tantalising pieces reporting that the show and its creator had not given up and, in spite of the failure of the second season, True Detective would be back. Pizzolatto had something to prove and would show everyone he was a force to be reckoned with.


When the trailer for the third season was released late last year it seemed that he was going to make good on his promise. Oscar winner Mahershala Ali in the lead, modern LA noir's favourite lip-curling bad boy Stephen Dorff in support, a multi-time-period storyline full of browns and greys, plenty of shots of strong men looking aghast at the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on one another to the accompaniment of Americana tunes of loss and pain.

Released earlier this month, the third season seems so far to be returning solidly to the structural, tonal, thematic and performance-centred foundations of its first season.

WATCH | The trailer for True Detective season 3

Ali plays Detective Wayne Hays, a world-weary former Vietnam tracker now working as a cop in a small Midwestern town who, together with his partner Roland West (Dorff), is called on to investigate the 1980 disappearance of two children - Will and Julie, son and daughter of feuding and estranged working-class parents Tom (Scoot McNairy) and Lucy (Mamie Gummer).

We already know from early on, thanks to a triple-tiered time jump, that this case is as yet unsolved. We see Hays in the present day being interviewed for a true-crime TV show; in the 1990s as a former cop called in to help the ongoing investigation and in 1980 at the time of the events.

This structural trick is a straight-up rework of the same technique used in the first season of the show and Ali has the presence as a performer and compellingly intriguing still-water-runs-deep visage to keep our interest and allow viewers of the previous seasons to gloss over Pizzolatto's self-plagiarism.

The time-jumping also provides us with a good dose of self-satisfactory dramatic irony - we may not know yet what happened to the children but we know other things that make us shake our heads in pathos at the fates some characters will experience unbeknown to them at the time.

In its first three episodes, the third season offers a tantalising if sometimes frustratingly slow offering up of its secrets. However, it seems far more assured of delivering on its promise than the second season and it's hard not to be drawn in by Ali's performance.

We may not quite know yet where we're going but so far, thanks to Ali, a suitably cryptic-dialogue-filled script by Pizzolatto and careful control of tone and narrative, it seems that this season is back on track to deliver the dramatic and intellectual rewards of its debut.

New episodes of 'True Detective' season 3 screen on DStv Channel 101 on Wednesdays at 22.10pm.