Of all the BIG shows returning in 2019, and there are a lot, I was the least excited for HBO’s True Detective. I came to its much-praised first season later than most and although I can see why the series, which was led by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson garnered attention I couldn’t quite see what True Detective was really about. The first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s crime anthology had a lot going for it. It was tremendously atmospheric with its roots tight within its Louisana setting. The central mystery was compelling and the performances from McConaughey and Harrelson lifted the more convoluted aspects of the plot.
The second season was highly anticipated but lightning didn’t strike twice for Pizzolatto with the story labelled over complicated and populated with thinly drawn and cold characters. The second season seemed to ignore all that had made the first such a word of mouth success. It was a mess. Self-indulgent, devoid of humour or character and could have sullied the reputation of the series for good. Given the response to season two, I was somewhat surprised when a third was announced. But, has the show managed to bounce back and has Pizzolatto learnt from the mistakes in season two??
On the face of it, the answer is yes, but peeling back the layers of this multi timelined mystery surrounding the disappearance of a brother and sister in 1980 it feels more like Pizzolatto is returning to the roots of the show but isn’t progressing any further.
Let’s start with the positives. Mahershala Ali as Detective Wayne Hays is every bit as good as you’d expect him to be. Ali portrays Hays in three different timelines and manages to make each portrayal feel as nuanced, real and of its time. The timelines interweave and whilst in other shows that can be jarring, it works here because Ali feels completely believable. We see Hays in 1980 when the brother and sister go missing, we see him in 1990 when his colleagues call him in to tell him he arrested the wrong man and we see him in 2015 where he find him widowed, struggling with dementia and being interviewed by a film crew who are making a documentary on the case.
There’s also a compelling performance from Scoot McNairy as the father who told his kids to be back before dark. The end of the episode delivers a surprisingly chilling scene free of dialogue that shows off just how good Ali can be, but it all comes a bit too late for me to truly want to commit to the series.
Whilst the failings here are nothing like the missteps that led to the disappointing second season, there are enough of them that I don’t want to spend much more time on this. The episodes lack a sense of place with director Jeremy Saulnier not taking time to explore the Ozark setting. Whilst I’m not against Ali’s Hayes being the focus, the drawback is that almost everyone around him feels underwritten. Stephen Dorff tries is best, Hayes’ police partner Ronald West is immensely boring and unforgettable. Though the case at the heart of the story could be chilling and interesting Pizzolatto’s script coupled Saulnier’s direction leaves the whole thing feeling a bit hollow. The runtime of the first episode is almost an hour and the pacing is worryingly glacial. In lots of ways you could compare the series to HBO’s other big crime drama: Sharp Objects that was often criticised for its slow pacing, but where that felt full of character and intrigue and with a great sense of place and unease this just feels slow and plodding. If the three timelines were stripped away the story at the heart of this third season doesn’t really offer anything new or exciting to a genre we all know so well. If I were to continue it would be purely off the strength of Ali’s lead performance sadly, not even he can tempt me back.
True Detective Continues Mondays at 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic and NOWTV