Should You Bother Watching: ‘True Detective’ Season 3?

After getting burned by season two we swore we’d never go back but then Mahershala Ali showed up.

True Detective Season 3

Welcome to ‘Should You Bother Watching’, Junkee’s column which helps to answer the streaming-age’s biggest question: is this show for me? In this one, we tackle True Detective Season 3.

At the height of the popularity of the first season of True Detective you could buy a t-shirt that said: I Am the Yellow King. People got so immersed in the series about a serial killer they’d happily identify themselves as a murderer in public.

The first season of True Detective became a marker for prestige television as well as an obsession.

Like its sibling on HBO, Game of Thrones, True Detective thrived as a show to watch week-to-week, and dissect in-between episodes — a phenomenon slowly becoming a rarity now that binge is best.

The show stood out because of director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who gave the series a haunting aesthetic loaded with style: episode four, the one with the 6-minute long tracking shot is one of the greatest moments in modern television. Each episode looks stunning, and the series functioned like the adult crime dramas that were slowly disappearing from cinemas and moving to television.

As were the stars, mainly, Matthew McConaughey, whose role in True Detective was part of a comeback, known as the McConaissance that led to an Academy Award — momentum is everything. It’s now the norm for actors who are considered ‘move stars’ (translation: too big for the small screen unless it was a cameo) to do television, but in 2014 the migration was just beginning.

The series got under our skin and like Detectives Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Cohle (McConaughey), we got deep into the mystery and began to lose our grip on reality, and buy t-shirts.

So did the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, who got high off the fumes of praise for the first season and delivered an unbearable follow-up featuring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, and Vince Vaughn. Season two became a case study in the hubris of ‘high quality television’ that seemed to parody HBO’s old slogan: “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.”

The fallout was so bad HBO considered cancelling their plans for more True Detective. Contrast this with another crime series that launched at the same time, Fargo, which is already up to its fourth season and has been consistently great.

But time can heal all wounds, and True Detective is back for a third season, bolstered by the presence of recent Academy Award winner, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, House of Cards). Pizzolatto is back on writing duties but this time he has the creator of Deadwood, David Milch, helping out.

The talent is a good sell — but is it worth going back?

Now And Then

The new season focuses on detective Wayne Hays (Ali), a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by a case involving two missing children in a small American town.

The series switches between 1980, 1990 and 2015, where Hays is older and being interviewed about the case for a true crime documentary. The elderly Hays is losing his memory but minor details about the investigation flash to mind, so he desperately tries to piece together the clues to solve the mystery.

True Detective season three is far more intimate than the previous seasons while showing a lot of restraint. The flashy direction and sermon-style monologues about life are scaled back and it’s entirely locked onto Hays. Pizzolatto seems to have learnt that instead of going bigger with these crime stories you must go inward.

The case itself is intriguing and there’s enough to send you into overdrive with theorising, but its Hays’ personal relationships where the true mystery lies. Hays’ partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), is with him nearly every step of the way, but noticeably absent in the later timeline. A teacher, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), assists Hays with the investigation in the 80s and her name is spotted on the spine of a true-crime book in 2015.

Each episode gives you just enough information about how each character is connected before detailing how their actions impacted the case in the future. The theme of this season is the flow-on effect of trauma from the Vietnam War, to a small town in America to a decaying mind nearly two decades later. Pizzolatto and Milch explore how each detective is worn down by the case and the personal toll it takes.

True Detective season three cleverly taps into storytelling techniques we associate with true crime tales, especially cold cases and miscarriages of justice, to piece everything together over each decade.

One of the most captivating elements is the elderly Hays’ paranoia — are his memories real or is he losing his mind? The sense of how our memory works is always at play. Do we remember things clearly or is everything just a memory of a memory, with small details missing?

They age Hays across the timelines, but it’s all there in his eyes: Ali gives an incredible performance. The scenes Ali shares with Ejogo are the highlight of the series and its a partnership with a greater importance than the professional side of the case.

More Of The Same Tho

Although the third season of True Detective is a return to form it’s a series that lacks growth.

The series feels like it’s on a tight leash with little room to move creatively. Cops are going to brood, creepy dolls are still being left at crime scenes and colour has been drained from everything. After the season two dip, True Detective is a show that’s levelling out but its approach is starting to feel repetitive and tired.

As a series, True Detective set a new benchmark for cop shows on television — they’ll never be a shortage of crime dramas — but there are limits to their prowess.

Since True Detective debuted, we’ve been hit with Ozark, Mindhunter, The Night Of, American Crime Story and Narcos, all trying to put style and quality at the forefront of telling stories that were once considered the domain of Law & Order and NYPD Blue.

It’s obvious why HBO chose to play it safe with season three but True Detectives limitations are now exposed: once it stood out, now it’s blending in with the pack.

So, Is True Detective Season 3 Worth Watching?

There’s enough intrigue and exorcising of personal demons within this season but it comes at the cost of a show that’s straining for new ideas and different points of view — the show is yet to hire a female writer or director, the greater crime here.

Pizzolatto’s creative control is emerging as a hindrance. Even just talking about the show in a circle from season one to three feels like this is as good as it’s going to get, which may be enough for some but HBO should be pushing for dramas that invigorate rather than stagnate, especially when they need shows to fill the gap Game of Thrones will leave when it ends.

True Detective season three is worth a look, for sure, especially for the Ali performance alone, but it’s only aspiring to match the success of its first season, and nothing more.

Watch True Detective season three Foxtel.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.