Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff in “True Detective” Season 3. Photo: HBO
While there’s no debating that TV is home to some of the most complex, compelling storytelling created right now, there’s a certain genre that inspires intense loyalty, passionate discussion and intense analysis.
Dating back to “The Sopranos,” which began its run on HBO in 1999, and featuring such hall of fame entries as “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” these are series built around deeply flawed antiheroes. While female characters appear, some quite memorably, male characters are generally the major protagonists. Their agonies are our agonies, whether they’re lying, stealing, killing, cheating on their wives or otherwise behaving badly.
It’s a trend that reached another peak with the first season of “True Detective,” the HBO anthology drama that premiered in 2014. With movie stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the leads, and a tricky time-shifting narrative about the detectives’ hunt for a serial killer, the series was a sensation.
McConaughey and Harrelson delivered outstanding performances as characters in the prime of life and later, as worn-down older men. Fans obsessed over the show’s swampy Southern Gothic atmosphere and Pizzolato’s pretentious – er, literary — flourishes.
Now, after a second season that most everybody found disappointing – Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Kelly Reilly all went down with the ill-conceived ship – “True Detective” is back. And the eight-episode third chapter, which premieres Sunday, Jan. 13 on HBO, boasts some of the same strengths, and weaknesses, of what’s come before.
Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali in “True Detective.” Photo: HBO
The best reason to watch this third “True Detective” story is its star, Mahershala Ali. Awards don’t mean a lot when it comes to the arts, but it’s easy to see why Ali has been scooping them up, including his supporting actor Oscar for “Moonlight,” and Sunday’s Golden Globe Award for “Green Book.”
In “True Detective,” Ali plays Wayne Hays, who has been haunted by a case he first worked on in 1980 as an Arkansas state police detective. The crime involves two children, a brother and sister, who set off on their bikes, as their father insists they be home by nightfall.
But the children turn up missing. Hays, and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff) get the assignment to investigate. What at first seems a sad, but routine, example of missing children evolves into a case that impacts Hays’ life for decades.
Like the first “True Detective,” this chapter moves around in time. The children are reported missing in 1980. Hays and West are called in to give depositions when further developments arise, 10 years later in 1990. In 2015, we see Hays as a gray-haired man trying to hold on to his memory as he speaks to a true-crime TV filmmaker about the case.
Ali is spectacularly good at conveying the changes going on inside Hays – even when the writing doesn’t really deepen the character. In the first few episodes made available for screening, Ali’s Hays is a character shaped by his service in the Vietnam War, a skilled young detective, an unhappy middle-aged man and a senior citizen not sure of what he remembers.
The series is often smart about how Hays handles being the only African American detective we see on the force. As a young man, he presents his theories, then isn’t surprised to see them discounted by his white superiors. When he presses his partner on why West didn’t use his whiteness to convince the bosses to listen, West gets defensive. In old age, Hays defaults to his public position, denying the true-crime show producer’s suggestion that his race made superiors dismiss his investigation.
Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo in “True Detective.” Photo: HBO
Through the time jumps, Ali remains mesmerizing, even when the script lets him down. That’s especially upsetting in the fourth episode, credited to Pizzolato and David Milch, the TV writer known for creating the HBO series, “Deadwood.”
While the first three episodes have their flaws, the mournful mood is beautifully sustained, thanks to Pizzolato’s writing and the directors (who include Jeremy Saulnier, who made the Portland-filmed thriller “Green Room”). But in episode four, the characters suddenly start acting coarse, macho and foul-mouthed.
In one especially dreadful sequence, Hays and schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) have a supposedly flirtatious dinner, in which both make crude remarks so out of character from what we’ve seen previously, it seems like an inexplicably bad dream sequence.
Mashershala Ali in “True Detective.” Photo: HBO
Unfortunately, Season 3 of “True Detective” again shows that Pizzolato is not particularly gifted when it comes to writing female characters. Ejogo does her best, but as Amelia marries Hays, she becomes a far less interesting character. (Don’t get me started on an awful scene where Amelia is angry with her husband, but decides to initiate sex with him.)
If Season 1 of “True Detective” got bogged down in “time is a flat circle” speeches and mythology, this time, Pizzolato again indulges in musing about time and memory, giving Amelia a scene where she cites Einstein’s belief that “past, present and future are all a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Even with the clunkers – the TV producer declares, for example, that she’s interested in “the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures” – “True Detective” Season 3 is worth watching.