When Season 1 of True Detective premiered in 2014, the term "Peak TV" had not yet been coined. Splashy anthology series weren't the genre unto themselves they are now. Highly cinematic TV shows with movie stars (in True Detective's case, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey at the height of the McConaissance) and a single writer (creator Nic Pizzolatto) and director (Cary Joji Fukunaga, who established his rep as an auteur with True Detective) were still pretty novel. It quickly became one of HBO's biggest hits ever, with first-season ratings higher than Game of Thrones' were in 2011, and became the most talked-about show of early 2014 thanks to Fukunaga's attention-grabbing direction, McConaughey's riveting performance as philosophical detective Rust Cohle and Pizzolato's half-silly, half-profound dialogue like "time is a flat circle." It captured the zeitgeist in a way that was hard to do then and is even harder to do now.
Five years later, there are just shy of 500 scripted series littered across a fractured TV landscape and movie stars are doing shows for Facebook that you've never even heard of. Fukunaga's Netflix miniseries with Emma Stone and Jonah Hill kinda came and went. The cutting edge that True Detective was on back then has become commonplace. And the True Detective brand was itself tarnished by a truly bad Fukunaga-less Season 2 in 2015. Still, Season 2 managed to capture the conversation because it was terrible in such an entertaining way that people had to talk about it, like "How did something that was so good a year and a half ago go so wrong?" But even that kind of negative attention is harder to get now than it was then.
So True Detective Season 3, which premieres Jan. 11 on HBO, won't break out in the way the first two seasons did. It's not really trying to, though. It's quiet and brooding. While it has much more in common with Season 1 than Season 2, it seemingly by design lacks the swing-for-the-fences excess of Season 1. It's just a well-made, well-acted, intelligently plotted, thematically rich mystery show. In 2019, that's both plenty and not enough.
To be clear, Season 3 is very good. Structurally, it uses the same reopened case conceit as Season 1, where a detective is talking to investigators about a long-ago mystery that still haunts him, but it adds a third timeline to great effect. Oscar winner Mahershala Ali plays Wayne "Purple" Hays, a detective who investigated the murder of a young boy and disappearance of the boy's sister in 1980 Arkansas. The case was reopened in 1990 when new evidence came to light, and Hays worked it again then. And in 2015, Hays — now suffering from the early stages of dementia — is being interviewed about the case for a documentary. The narrative jumps back and forth between 1980, 1990 and 2015 in intuitive ways, and the writing is elegant, as events in 1990 comment on those in 1980 which get remembered in 2015 without the viewer ever losing their place.
Pizzolatto's pet theme of masculinity gets investigated in really interesting ways. The men of True Detective Season 3 are men who will commit heinous acts of preemptive violence under the guise of protecting children, but who can't talk to their own children. A melancholy about anger being the preferred expressed emotion in men and how it isolates them from their loved ones hangs over the show, especially in the 2015 scenes, where Hays has lost not only his wife, but his memories. Themes of PTSD (Hays and many other characters are Vietnam vets) and racism (Hays is a black cop in the rural South) are peppered throughout in intelligent, natural ways. The best episode of the five sent for review is Episode 4, which is co-written by Deadwood's David Milch and is top-to-bottom great scenes, with a special shoutout to Mamie Gummer as the kids' mother.
Ali's performance deserves all praises. He's a master of stoicism that lets just enough pain through. He's alternately intimidating and tender, a good man haunted by demons. No disrespect to McConaughey, but it might be the best performance on any season of True Detective. It's certainly the most authentic. And a special shoutout also goes to the makeup team, which gives him uncommonly good old age makeup in the 2015 scenes. Old age makeup is almost impossible to do well, and it's not perfect here (don't look too closely at his neck), but combined with the quality of his performance, the makeup is good enough that it's not a distraction, which is a success.
True Detective is like Nas. Just like Nas could never make another Illmatic, Nic Pizzolatto can never make another Season 1. You only get one divinely inspired first impression. But Nas made Stillmatic and has had a long, solid career. And that's what's happening here. True Detective is pivoting to reliability. It's no longer trying to be a sensation. It's just trying to be a good show.
True Detective Season 3 premieres Sunday, Jan. 13 at 9/8c on HBO.