'True Detective' Season 3 Review: A Semi-Successful Attempt To Recreate What Made Season 1 Special

"Someone once told me, 'Time is a flat circle,'" Detective Rustin Cohle famously said in the first season of True Detective. "Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again." Series creator Nic Pizzolatto didn't know it at the time, but when he wrote those words for Matthew McConaughey to deliver, he was predicting the future of his own TV series. As True Detective season 3 unfolds, it becomes clear that Pizzolatto has decided to do everything he did in season 1 over and over and over again, to the point where the new season – which debuts on HBO this weekend – starts to feel like a remake of season 1.

Can you really blame Pizzolatto for taking this approach, though? After the critical acclaim and buzz-worthy reaction to the first season, the True Detective architect tried to do something completely different with season 2 – and it backfired. While I'm one of the weirdos who thinks True Detective season 2 isn't nearly as bad as people make it out to be, it's not very good, either. It was as if Pizzolatto was desperately trying to prove to his audience that he wasn't a one-trick pony, and he changed things up as much as possible. More characters, a more complicated mystery, a complete change of tone and setting – the Southern gothic atmosphere of season 1 was traded in for Michael Mann-ish L.A. noir. People were not pleased, and the reaction was so negative that HBO President of Programming Michael Lombardo issued an apology of sorts, saying that the second season failed because HBO rushed Pizzolatto to turn it around quickly to cash-in on the show's popularity.

After the season 2 fiasco, it wasn't even clear if True Detective would return at all. But the series is indeed back, and it's trying desperately to recapture the magic of season 1. Pizzolatto has completely abandoned any ambition to try something different, and instead returns the series to its Southern gothic roots. Like season 1, the storyline unfolds over several different time periods. And in one of those time periods, the main character is recounting events in an interrogation setting. There are two cops at the center of the case in question – one is a dark, brooding, troubled man, the other is his more average, somewhat-by-the-book partner. Is all of this ringing a bell? It is if you've seen season 1.

The mystery of True Detective season 3 involves the disappearance of two children in Arkansas. The missing persons case eventually turns into a homicide, and state police detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are on the case. Wayne is the brooding, troubled man: he used to be a tracker in the Vietnam War, and the war still haunts him in many ways. "He has his own method," West says of his partner at one point, as Hays wanders around looking for tracks.

Hays tracks the mystery over three specific points of time: 1980, when he first catches the case; 1990, when new evidence comes to light; and 2015, when an older Hays, starting to succumb to dementia, sits down for an interview with a true crime TV series, and starts putting more pieces together. The mystery is never as compelling, or as creepy, as season 1. Nor is it as convoluted and confusing as season 2. It unfolds along a natural progression, with twists arising to keep things going.

true detective season three

In addition to his career, we also get a glimpse into Hays' personal life. In 1980, he interviews the teacher of one of the missing students – Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) – and is clearly smitten with her. By 1990, they're married with children – but the marriage is on the rocks. Amelia has written a true crime book about the case, and Hays has taken a hit in his career, and turned into a bitter, resentful, confrontational jerk. Pizzolatto is once again delving into his favorite topic – masculinity, and all its forms, toxic or otherwise. As if to underscore all of this, the series opens with a reference to the death of the ultimate man's man – Steve McQueen. "This generation is too soft," Hays complains at one point. The implication is clear: tough guys are a dying breed, and Hays feels like the last of the last, fighting to hang on.

To Pizzolatto's credit, he's willing to call bullshit on Hays' mentality, mostly through the form of Amelia. Pizzolatto has been (rightly) criticized for the rather shabby way he writes female characters, but I'm pleased to say that Amelia is complex enough to prove that he's grown as a writer. It helps that Ejogo brings a lot to the role, playing Amelia as both sweet and mysterious – but also like a real live person, and not just some man's warped version of a woman.

But as far as performances go, this is Ali's show. The actor, who is almost always fantastic without fail, electrifies the screen here. His brooding, rude attitude would be almost insufferable in a weaker actor's hands, but Ali knows just how to play Hays – keeping a mournful, wounded look just behind his dark eyes. Hays is one of the few black men in an area that's what you might call "politely racist." The townfolk may not hurl racial epithets at his face, but they're always treating him as an other – and an inferior other, to boot. There's rage burning within Hays about this, but he has to keep it in check, and there are times where we can feel the inner-tension Ali is creating, as the actor clenches his jaw or lets out a deep sigh.

The rest of the cast does their best with somewhat underwritten parts. Dorff is good, and easy-going, as West, but the character isn't nearly as well-drawn as Woody Harrelson's similar season 1 character Marty Hart. Scoot McNairy is often heartbreaking as the father of the missing kids, but the script doesn't require him to do much but sob or yell. Mamie Gummer makes an impression as the frantic, angry mother of the children.

Despite True Detective season 3's attempts to recreate what worked with season 1, the show still lacks what made that season so memorable: a clear vision. Pizzolatto's writing was often good, and the performances – particularly McConaughey's – were great. But the secret weapon of that first True Detective was Cary Joji Fukunaga. Fukunaga directed the entire season, and having him in charge of every episode brought a true cohesion to the proceedings. Every episode flowed into the next smoothly, and the series felt more whole.

Season 3 starts off with two episodes directed by Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier, which is promising. Saulnier has a distinct, raw style, and had he directed the entire season, this review would have a lot more praise. But Saulnier departed – either due to scheduling, or clashes with Pizzolatto, depending on who you ask. As a result, the rest of the season alternates between being directed by Pizzolatto, and Daniel Sackheim. This ultimately results in an uninspired visual style that fails to burn itself in your brain the way Fukunaga's mise en scène did. On the plus side, Deadwood creator David Milch has been brought in to co-write two episodes, which results in some vastly improved dialogue (too bad Milch didn't write the entire season).

True Detective season 3 is a vast improvement over season 2, but it never quite matches the strength and memorability of season 1. Ali's performance is (mostly) enough to keep you hooked, but don't expect to come away from this with the same level of excitement generated by that very first run. Close, but no cigar, as they say. But don't worry – time is a flat circle, after all. We'll probably end up doing this over and over and over. Maybe one of those times, things will work out better.


True Detective season 3 premieres on HBO January 13.