HBO’s True Detective emerged in 2014 at the dawn of the modern limited series renaissance. In fact, it was so well received thanks to its tremendous lead performances that it eschewed the then-titled Outstanding Miniseries Emmy category in favor of the big leagues – Outstanding Drama Series. Results of the realignment emerged something of a mixed bag. Instead of near-guaranteed wins for Miniseries and Lead Actor in a Miniseries, it hit a brick wall called Breaking Bad and only received a directing win in the major races for Cary Fukunaga.
His award, in my mind, was perhaps the most deserved Emmy of the night. Fukunaga, aided by the lightning-in-a-bottle performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, created a thrilling and tight series. One that balanced moments of real depth and pathos with stunning visuals and one very thrilling long take. Fukunaga parted ways with the series following his win, and honestly, it hasn’t felt the same sense. Forget the dreadful and pretentious Season 2. Please.
Season 3, though, attempts at a return to greatness for the series, and in many ways, it does echo the rhythms and tone of that great first season. It shifts the action back to a similar setting and visual palette as Season 1. Again, we have two detectives – Mahershala Ali’s Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff’s Roland West – investigating a mysterious death with eerie symbols scattered near the body. What’s missing from the third season is Fukunaga’s unified vision. Instead of a single director creating what amounts to a feature film, Season 3 offers multiple directors working in tandem to realize writer Nic Pizzolatto’s vision. Despite strong performances, True Detective Season 3 just doesn’t strike in the same tremendous way Season 1 did. It’s a step up from Season 2, of course, but most things are.
M.V.P. Ali plays Hays in three different eras – the initial murder, ten years later, and a more modern day look as an aging Hays struggles to remember details of the murder investigation. As in most films he stars in, you really can’t take your eyes off Ali. He’s magnetic, yet subtle. Intense, yet often kind and endearing. Here, Ali further proves the tremendous range he has as an actor. Co-star Stephen Dorff plays well off Ali, but this is no McConaughey/Harrelson situation. The material clearly belongs to Ali, and he brings it every minute. I also really responded to Carmen Ejogo’s performance as a local schoolteacher drawn to the magnetic Ali.
Ultimately, Ali’s towering performance is enough to recommend the new season. But it’s nowhere near the accomplishment of Season 1. It lacks that effort’s hyper focus and sustained intensity, again likely thanks to the immense talents of Fukunaga. Here, the moments of depth and genuine pain are buried beneath drawn-out moments of overwrought contemplation and mood setting. It crawls when it should simmer. It drags when it should enthrall. Ali is an enormous draw to the material, but it ultimately betrays him by failing to maintain a compelling narrative.
True Detective Season 3 definitely warrants a look for its atmosphere and performances. It does so much right that you can’t help but wish for a consistent and wholly engaging vision.
True Detective airs Sunday night at 9pm ET.