tv review

What Is True Detective, Really?

Mahershala Ali in True Detective season three.
Mahershala Ali in True Detective season three. Photo: Warrick Page/Courtesy of HBO

The further away we get from True Detective’s first season, the more it seems like a fluke of pop-culture alchemy. It merged a director (Cary Joji Fukunaga), a writer (Nic Pizzolatto), and two lead actors (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) who proved more complementary than anyone could’ve imagined, and it had an aesthetic unlike anything TV viewers had seen before: film noir/Southern gothic/pulp fiction with a buddy-cop framework and hints of the uncanny. But of all the recent, high-profile anthologies wherein the unit of measure is the season rather than the episode, it ultimately seems to have the weakest sense of its own aesthetic. What is it, really? Does its creator even know?

American Horror Story, Fargo, American Crime Story, and ABC’s late, lamented American Crime (the best of the bunch) were qualitatively erratic, too — some more so than others — but you never looked at a new season and thought, “Who thought that this would be a good fit with what came before?” True Detective’s second season, which gave Pizzolatto unchecked creative control, was a rambling, disorganized mess that kept promising to deliver a Chinatown-style inquisition on big-city corruption but was content to wallow in male self-pity and R-rated tough-guy clichés. The locale shifted from a Flannery O’Connor–meets–H.P. Lovecraft Louisiana to the neo-noir mean streets of Los Angeles, a setting that’s been done and done and done again. The humor-impaired scripts doubled down on despairing machismo even when dealing with the main cast’s only prominent female character. In the end, the series exemplified the most extreme sophomore-season qualitative free fall since Homeland.

Season three, which is set in the Ozarks in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and the recent past, doesn’t answer that nagging, fundamental question about the series — namely, what, exactly, is True Detective, besides a collection of stories involving cops and murderers, encrusted with literary affectations? It also has that familiar post-millennium-TV problem of seeming as if it doesn’t have enough story to justify its running time. And it arrives on our screens bearing a third creative burden that its makers couldn’t have foreseen: It’s a time-shifting saga about an emotionally disturbed person trying to solve the disappearance of children in a rural area, a tale told mere months ago on this same cable channel, in a dazzling adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. But there’s still plenty to like, starting with the way Pizzolatto and Deadwood creator David Milch (who co-wrote an episode) have decided to focus not on a mismatched buddy-cop team, but on a single protagonist, Arkansas detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), who just happens to be part of an investigative pair, and who is so tightly bottled up that you have to read his feelings and thoughts by watching his face and body as he moves through the world. Hays has certain qualities in common with McConaughey’s character from season one — he’s an intuitive genius about certain things, particularly how to follow various kinds of trails, whether made from tire tracks, footprints or documents — but he’s not a loquacious, somewhat dandified philosopher-knight, just a cop who seems like a real person and happens to be very good at what he does.

That Hays is an African-American working in a white-dominated, often racist environment takes the series into terrain it never explored before, and we apparently have Ali to thank for that: He was originally approached about playing the secondary part of the team — Detective Roland West, a role eventually filled by Stephen Dorff — but persuaded Pizzolatto to cast him as Hays instead, because changing the main character’s race would open up new dramatic possibilities. This proved to be one of two masterstrokes, along with making Hays a more introspective and reactive character. Hays is a Vietnam veteran who’s a good listener and has a gift for mirroring the emotions of suspects and witnesses, even though he often gets frustrated when he’s dealing with his partner, his co-workers, and his significant other Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher who knew the missing kids and ends up writing a best-selling true-crime book about the case.

True Detective falls prey to a slightly milder case of misogyny than afflicted it in season one. It’s inexplicable that, at least through the five episodes provided to critics ahead of Sunday’s premiere, they’d make the father of the missing kids (Scoot McNairy) a major character but sideline their mother (Mamie Gummer). And while Amelia is a likable, intelligent character, and Ejogo’s chemistry with Ali feels genuine, she’s never defined apart from her relationship to the hero; during an argument, she calls Hays “a grown man with no agency of his own,” a complaint that some critics made about the women in prior seasons. But in other ways, this is a more ambitious and sophisticated take on human relationships than the series has attempted before, one that pays closer attention to real-world influences. The cultural and emotional legacy of the Vietnam War becomes increasingly important as the story unfolds, and it dovetails with the racial aspects. One of most intense relationships in the first five episodes is between Hays and a local named Bret Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), a Native American junkman and loner viewed with suspicion by whites. It’s clear from the way they speak to each other that they have an understanding, and the filmmaking (overseen by directors Pizzolatto, Jeremy Saulnier, and Daniel Sackheim) lets this emerge organically by watching the actors perform together, rather than underlining and boldfacing it in dialogue.

It’s equally clear that even though Hays and West respect and care for each other, race is a largely unacknowledged gulf in their bond. A strong scene in the fourth episode finds the detectives surrounded by angry poor black residents after they go to interrogate a black suspect in the case. Afterward, West admits that if the mob had been poor whites, he would’ve reacted more decisively and violently. It’s clear from his tone that he wanted to reach for his gun, and that only fear of being called racist stopped him, which is less an indictment of “political correctness” than West’s reactionary tendencies and propensity to escalate. The suspect is resentful from the start, and not without reason. “White children,” he says, after Hays explains the case was covered by local media. “If it was in the papers, it was white children.”

Season three is more attentive to spiritual matters than prior seasons as well: West was raised Baptist, while Hays is a Catholic (“Remiss of late,” he tells a priest) and the deeper we get into the story, the more we start to sense that something horrible happened to him during the war and that he’s letting it marinate in his memory because he’s too scared to excavate and examine it. (“Would you like to confess now?” a local priest asks him. “I reckon I’ll let it pile up a little more,” Hays replies.) He’s presented as a seeker who doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for yet, and Ali incarnates him brilliantly, consistently making the audience come to him, doing as little as he can where other actors might’ve wallowed in cheap indication. The opening credits end with an image that sums up his brilliant star turn here: a silhouette of Ali’s torso and head looming against a grey sky, an orange sun shining through the center of his forehead like a third eye.

*A version of this article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What Is True Detective, Really?