Brow Beat

First Principles

True Detective’s third season tries to recapture the macho magic of its first.

Mahershala Ali as Detective Wayne Hays, wearing a trenchcoat and walking in the woods.
Mahershala Ali in True Detective. HBO

In July 2015, Nic Pizzolatto, the writer and creator of HBO’s crime drama True Detective, told Vanity Fair that the only connection between the first and the second season of the show would be: Nic Pizzolatto. “Me,” he said. “Detectives, intimacies, and ideas … but it’s all just me. That’s what makes it the same show.” The first season of True Detective was, like all television shows, a collaboration among hundreds of people—and in this case, four in particular: Pizzolatto, director Cary Fukunaga, and actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The result of this group effort, a philosophical bayou crime noir, was successful by almost every measure: buzz, ratings, critical acclaim, award nominations. But success is not a dry good. For some people, there will never be enough to go around. Following the first season, Pizzolatto began to emphasize his patently enormous role in the project with the single-minded hubris-slash-insecurity of a true piece of work.

Anyone—and you’d think a writer in particular—would recognize the age-old plot structure deftly assembled here: the young tyro who exceeds expectations and then fancies himself untouchable and unteachable, flapping closer and closer to the sun until … splat. Everything that worked in True Detective’s first season—the mood, the humor, the existential queries, the singular characters, the genuinely freaky details—became leaden, ponderous, humorless, and grim in its second. It was such a dud it retroactively diminished the first season, which, in hindsight, was also shot through with machismo, poor plotting, and self-seriousness. On the strength of one season, True Detective became a blue-chip franchise. On the weakness of the second, it turned into a junk bond. For a while, it was unclear if there would ever be a third.

But no one leaves potentially lucrative IP just lying around anymore, and so, lo, Season 3 of True Detective, starring Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, arrives this week. It has a more precise vision of what makes something a season of True Detective than “Nic Pizzolatto,” and that vision is: Season 1. This is a far more viable idea upon which to base an entire TV show, but it’s not exactly an inspired one. Ali plays Wayne Hays, a Vietnam veteran and major-crimes detective who in 1980 begins to investigate a disturbing child abduction. As with Season 1, but unlike Season 2, the third is set in the South—Arkansas this time—and intercuts between time periods that require the lead actors to wear aging makeup. In 1980, Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, in the Woody Harrelson, irascible ol’ coot role) try to solve the case for the first time; in 1990, the case is reopened, and Hays and West, no longer partners, eventually team back up to really solve it; in 2015, Hays, now 70 and having significant memory problems, is interviewed for a Making a Murderer–style documentary about the case and decides to really, really solve it.

The new season riffs on the first, occasionally trying to do more—it takes place in three timelines, not two!—but usually doing less, which is not altogether a bad thing. One way to understand the boondoggle that was Season 2 is as the maximalist expression of all of Pizzolatto’s worst storytelling instincts. Left to his own devices, Pizzolatto turned macho prestige TV up to 12 (darker! grimmer! more violence!), fetishizing, in particular, the occasionally incomprehensible quality of shows like The Wire and Mad Men.

I’m thinking of certain dialogue-heavy exchanges from these series in which you got the gist of what was happening, but would have to rewind to follow, line for line, the specifics. When these scenes work (and they do sometimes), it’s because they make you work. As you try to understand the dialogue and follow the plot, it can feel like you’re playing catch-up, just keeping your head above water, an effort that seems like—and maybe even is—evidence of the show’s depth. Less kindly, these sequences work like a neg: undermining enough to convince you the show is smarter than you are—which sometimes it is.

All to say, Pizzolatto is not the only self-styled auteur to use this technique. But he is the only one who used it to create a season of TV so convoluted a generous or rational person might assume it wasn’t meant to be followed in the first place. Trying to comprehend the second season felt like treading water in a kiddie pool. It indicated that Pizzolatto’s ambition wasn’t to entertain us, but to impress us—a tendency you could see even in Season 1, whose genre elements he said he didn’t care about and whose central mystery he resolved with snooty disinterest. Instead of outsmarting his audience, he outsmarted himself.

The new season has some of this same incomprehensibility, but a relatively small amount. Everything about it is toned down. The creepy totems left at the scene of the crime seem like a willful echo of the first season’s tangles of twigs, but without their eerie power. Ali is excellent as Hays, who, like McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, is a soulful loner—he was a tracker in the Vietnam War, and he can find anyone—but it’s a much less flashy part. Hays’ transformation over the years is far less physically radical, and he’s relatively taciturn, which at least keeps the dialogue from getting inordinately purple.

The first season, theoretically about the brutal violence against women, was ultimately more interested in women’s bodies than their personalities. The new season addresses this critique, not by writing much better female characters, but by excluding female corpses and nudity. As with the first season, the female lead is the wife. In 1980, Hays meets Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), a teacher, while working the case. In 1990, they’re married with children, and their relationship is troubled: She has written a nonfiction book—it goes on to become a true crime classic—about the case, and Hays resents it. He claims to find it unseemly, the way she uses the story to make a career for herself, but he also begrudges her ambition, the energy spent on something other than him and their family. Amelia, whom we see mostly through Hays’ eyes and sometimes his memory, has a lot of ambition and willpower, but she never quite comes into focus.

The one dynamic that is almost entirely new to this season is race. Hays is one of the few black detectives on his police force—as far as we see, the only one—and this plays a large role in his lack of professional advancement. Race comes up again and again in conversations with Roland, in conversations with Amelia, in interviews with suspects, in a heated confrontation in an all-black community. But it is also the subtext of the investigation itself. One detail overlooked in the initial investigation is eyewitness accounts of a black man interacting with the victims. Is this a boogeyman conjured by white witnesses, or is it a real lead? And if it is the latter, why would the white establishment in 1980s Arkansas have gone out of its way to cover it up, instead of using said black man as a scapegoat for a violent crime? I don’t know what the answer to this question will be—only five of eight episodes were sent to critics—but the setup strikes me as being analogous to the role of sexism and misogyny in the first season. If it’s not part of the resolution of the season’s arc, the show is just trying to get credit for being thoughtful about race without actually thinking about race. (It’s not particularly promising to learn that Ali’s role was originally written for a white actor.)

As I watched, I kept playing a little parlor game in my head: What if this had been the second season of the show, instead of the third? Would I think less or more of it? Would I think less of it because it’s not as good as the first? Or would I think more of it because I hadn’t become inclined to think of the whole series as a kind of pretentious joke? Is being better than the second season really an accurate use of the word “better”? Is being “worse” than the first season all that bad? Then I wondered what I would think if neither of the previous seasons had existed, and I realized—I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it at all.