Kevin Burton Smith

When True Detective aired back in January 2014 on HBO, it seemed like a whole new kind of crime drama. Each “series” was to feature one long, unfolding case. And like so many binge-worthy dramas in this new “Golden Age of Television,” the bulk of the writing would land on one person’s shoulders, usually an experienced TV pro. Guys like David Milch, David Simon, David Chase. No writers’ room network or basic cable spam-in-a-can for HBO.

Only Louisiana-born Nic Pizzolatto was not a TV guy. His first name wasn’t even David. He was a mystery guy. Sure, his extraordinary first novel, Galveston (2010), earned him all sorts of acclaim, but his only television credits were a couple of The Killing episodes a few years earlier. HBO’s faith in him as writer and show runner, however, was not misplaced.

That first series starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of dramatically mismatched Louisiana State Police homicide detectives, and followed their pursuit of a seriously deranged serial killer over a 17-year period. It was an intoxicating brew; a dark, moody, shape-shifting (and sometimes polarizing) slice of procedural noir, unlike any TV cop show we’d seen before. No flashing lights CSI or cut-and-pasted-from-the-headlines blarney neatly wrapped up in 60 minutes (if you count the Tidy Bowl and Bud Light commercials). Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, and Tory Kittles were also in the cast, and the denouement took a big step into the creepy, woozy world of Lovecraftian horror (or did it?). Still, it was the slowly disintegrating bromance between good ol’ boy (or is he?) Harrelson and drug and alcohol-addled, freewheeling freethinking wingnut McConaughey over those 17 years that stole the show. It ended up a critics’ darling, nominated for and winning numerous awards and assorted huzzahs for acting, cinematography, writing, and direction.

The second series? The production values were once again top-notch, and once again the cast was top-loaded with big movie star size names, but the show itself? Not so much. Promisingly set in California, pretty much ground zero for noir, it tried to focus on the investigation of several crimes tpossibly linked to a local politico’s murder, led by three variously corrupt or compromised detectives (played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch) from three (theoretically) cooperating police departments. While it certainly offered scope, the emotional wallop was MIA. No matter how hard they tried to paint it black, it smelled more like typical police fare (Helicopters! Russian mobsters! Sex parties! Drugs!). Still, the final scenes of Vince Vaughn as a local criminal-turned-legit-businessman chewing the scenery while watching his world crumble remain with me. The ratings were good enough for a third shot, but the huzzahs were slow in coming. Too much Ellroy, not enough Pizzolatto.

But the third season of True Detective is upon us, and all is forgiven. It’s a welcome return to form, judging from the episodes I’ve seen, and it may be the best one yet—a stripped-down, heartbreaking meditation on justice, mercy, honor, memory, and life itself. Mahershala Ali, fresh off his Oscar win for Moonlight, owns soft-spoken Detective Wayne “Purple” Hays of the Arkansas State Police, and Stephen Dorff is his laconic white partner Roland West. They’re drinking beer, shooting rats and killing time when they’re called in. A young boy and his kid sister have gone missing in the Ozarks.

At a Beverly Hills press conference I attended, Pizzolatto confessed he was trying to avoid being pushed into “any kind of real violent heart-of-darkness sort of stuff.” Still, there’s all kinds of real hurt uncovered as the story slowly, majestically unfolds in three different timeframes: 1980, when the children were first abducted and the case is presumably closed; 1990, when new evidence casts serious shade on the initial investigation, and 2015 when an ambitious film maker, doing a documentary (cheekily titled True Criminal) wants to interview Wayne about how it all went wrong thirty five years ago. Problem is, Wayne’s no longer a young man and he knows it. The show opens ominously, a foreshadow of things to come, as Wayne fumbles, buttoning his shirt, contemplating his white-haired reflection in the bedroom mirror, seeking solace, perhaps, in an echo from his past. “Yeah, of course, I remember…. I remember everything.”

But he doesn’t, and that’s the real question the burns through the series. What do you remember? How do you know what you don’t remember? Wayne’s memory is slipping, and yet the case, his part in it and the marriage that failed because of it still torments him. Where did it go wrong, or more precisely, where did he go wrong?

Echoes of that first series abound: the rural, Southern setting with its hints of the macabre; the reliance on flashbacks; the totem-like dolls that seem to somehow figure in the crime, the fragments of guilt and regret that slowly re-emerge. But the plotting is tighter and more precise, unravelling in a disciplined, inevitable movement as compelling as it is unsettling. Organic, almost.

Meanwhile, the thoughtful performances, particularly by Ali and Dorff, are nuanced and haunting. Unlike the head-butting of McConaughey and Harrelson, there’s a mature, professional camaraderie—even when Wayne and Roland are at at loggerheads—that’s a joy to watch; a triumph of pragmatism and realism over scenery chewing. Even the racial element is, for once, deftly downplayed—acknowledged and then Next! Rounding out the cast are Scoot McNairy as the children’s anguished father and Carmen Ejogo as Amelia, Hayes’ wife, an ambitious school teacher who ends up writing a bestselling book about the case—a fact that leads, eventually, to their bitter breakup.

Those first five episodes raise a lot of questions. But a lot could go wrong in the last three.

Fortunately, the press conference was reassuring. Pizzolatto, returning music director T-Bone Burnett, returning executive producer Scott Stephens were all on hand and Ali (everyone else was on a first name basis, but the press addressed him as “Mr. Ali”) all seem truly committed.

And it shows. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, beautifully filmed, a crime story for adults, all brought home by Burnett’s skittery, ominous score and cherry-picked slices of old weird Americana that fills the vast bleakness of the Ozark wilderness like a knife fills its sheath.

Somehow it seems unfair I have to wait for the last three episodes like the rest of you.

True Detective 3 premiered on HBO on January 13, 2019.