This is a spoiler-free True Detective season 3 review, based on the first five episodes.
In Atlanta’s fourth episode, “The Streisand Effect,” Earn (Donald Glover) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) are headed to a pawn shop to get some quick money for Earn. En route Earn reveals that he doesn’t know who movie star Steve McQueen is. Darius responds that that’s understandable – most black people don’t know who Steve McQueen is. Earn doubts this claim. Later on at the pawnshop, Earn spots a Steve McQueen poster and asks the black owner of the shop if he knows who Steve McQueen is. “Yeah,” the owner responds. “Would you know who Steve McQueen was if you didn’t work here?” Darius asks, not willing to concede the point. “Black people don’t know who Steve McQueen is,” the shopkeeper says. “If some dude comes in asking about that poster, I know he’s trying to get me to turn around so he can rob me.”
In the first episode of True Detective Season 3, black Arkansas state detective Wayne Hays (as played by the now-expected talent and charm of Mahershala Ali) is asked to recount the events of November 7, 1980 in which he caught the case that would change his life forever. He says he remembers the events of the day well because it was the day Steve McQueen died. He repeats this point several times.
I don’t know what to really make of these two recent television references to the “King of Cool.” Of the two, I think it’s clear which one comes from a show written by people who are keen observers of the human condition. True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto doesn’t have the same strengths of Donald Glover’s writing team. He doesn’t really know how people think and speak. But True Detective Season 3 proves once again that he knows how the hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-harding detectives of the dime store novels he has in his head think and speak at least.
To dispense with the obvious, True Detective Season 3 is much better than season 2 because most things are. Here the true crime anthology series goes as far back to its roots as possible without veering directly into self-plagiarism. This season, like the ether-rattling first, deals with only two detectives (this time played by Ali and Stephen Dorff, echoing the pairing of season one’s Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), from the American South (the Ozarks instead of the Bayou) who are confronted with a gruesome case that involves children and possibly even a touch of the occult.
The True Detective “series” as it were, never got around to giving its seasons proper subtitles or concepts but it’s clear that HBO is all but mouthing the words “Classic” after “True Detective” appears in the opening credits (which are still very cool). This is absolutely True Detective Classic, inasmuch as anything can be a classic distillation of another story that’s only five years old. HBO gave Pizzolatto much more time to work with and sit on his ideas for season three than they did for season two and even saddled him with some creative babysitters like Deadwood creator David Milch and two new directors in Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) and Daniel Sackheim (The Americans). The end result is a season of television that’s still flawed but far more consistently stylish and comfortable in its own skin.
The backwoods of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas already feel much more like True Detective than the California highway system of season two ever did. Saulnier, who directs the first episode, does so with real aplomb, creating a believably crusty yet appealing world where those hard-nosed detectives in Pizzolatto’s pulp fantasies can deliver lines like “You know how many times rats almost ended human civilization?” without it sounding cringey. Though perhaps True Detective Season 3 can accommodate lines like that since the acting talent is once again top notch.
Scoot McNairy (Halt and Catch Fire) is a real find as Tom Purcell, the father to missing children, Will and Julie. Tom’s pain is the emotional throughline of the series and brings an uncomfortable dose of reality to the stylish true crime aesthetic the show establishes. If True Detective Season 1 was missing anything, it was an actor who can capably communicate grief like McNairy…and who has a hell of an appealing Southern accent to boot.
Stephen Dorff fills what could be loosely described as the “Woody Harrelson” role and does so very well. Dorff has always had a fascinating brute physicality that made him a better actor but likely held him back from the movie stardom he seemed otherwise well suited for. His Roland West is a people person…like a weather-beaten Steve McQueen who was somehow left behind in Arkansas. He also has excellent chemistry with true star Ali. Refreshingly, True Detective has opted out of the “mismatched detectives” trope this time. Wayne and Roland’s partnership is something deeper and more complicated than friendship and is far more interesting to watch than two alpha males merely bickering back and forth.
Of course, Ali deftly slots into the Matthew McConaughey/Rust Cohle archetype that True Detective Season 1 helped to annoyingly popularize. Though Ali’s Hays is something that no character on True Detective has ever been before: quiet. Ali is all skin, bone, abs, and eyes in the role and his presence silently dominates whatever scene he’s in. Through Ali’s strong silence, True Detective is able to communicate volumes about a character every bit as otherworldly and special as Rust Cohle but not nearly as college sophomore atheist-y. Wayne Hays is preternaturally talented and observant, damaged from his time in the Vietnam War, and painfully aware of his complicated presence as a black police officer in the very, very, very white South.
As a very, very, very white person myself, I’m probably not the best judge of how True Detective deals with having a black lead inside what amounts to a 1980s true crime novel. But I will say I’m pleasantly surprised at the subtle and overt ways the show addresses it. In an interview with Esquire, Ali said that the role of Hays was originally intended to be played by a white man with the “sidekick” role to be played by a black man. It’s pretty impressive how Pizzolatto (who I just accused no fewer than six paragraphs ago of not knowing anything about human beings…critics are fickle) addresses Hays’ awkward racial position while respecting his humanity. Though of course True Detective Season 3 does eventually introduce a millennial LIBRUULLLL to make fun of how she uses high faultin’ words like “intersectionality,” so do with that information what you will.
True Detective Season 3 is able to incorporate at least one millennial because the show is concerned with memory more than ever before, in a rather refreshing way. The first season incorporated some past and present storytelling as Rust and Marty were interviewed in the present about a case from the past. Apparently deciding that the lack of multiple timelines was the biggest issue with season 2 (it wasn’t), True Detective Season 3 elects to try out a whopping THREE timelines. The crime takes place in 1980, an unexpected update to the crime occurs in 1990, and Hays is interviewed about the crime for a true crime TV documentary in 2015. The show uses the three timelines to much stylistic success (the old age makeup applied to Ali for 2015 is frankly incredible) but through five episodes screened for critics, it isn’t fully able to take advantage of memory and time as a theme.
And therein lies the rub with True Detective Season 3. The show is good again by almost any measure. It’s a near perfect copy of the show’s first season and creative height. The thing is…what we want out of our television shows has changed quite a bit in five years. In TV time, five years may as well be 500. True Detective Season 3 is as stylish and intriguing as its first season was. It’s also kind of punishingly boring at times. This appears to be another classic case of “too much time, not enough story.” True Detective Season 3 is eight episodes long because seasons 1 and 2 were. So far, it feels like it could be half that length, conservatively.
I know “cut cut cut” is frequently becoming the most constant criticism among TV commentary and it feels like a kind of privileged, spoiled request to make when our ancient forefathers routinely sat through 25 episodes of standalone stories every season. It’s just hard not to board the “cut” train on True Detective when five episodes seems to cover two episodes of actual plot developments.
Still, True Detective Season 3 is back on its game in a big way. Pizzolatto and company put in a lot of care and energy getting back to the creative place that made season 1 such a hit. They just weren’t able to get past that creative place and into fresh ideas. In the incredibly competitive entertainment market of 2019, I’m not sure many of us have time for one of 2014’s best shows.