After some wild ups and downs, the hyped third season of HBO’s “True Detective” (2014–) came back down to earth. Starring Mahershala Ali, this season focuses on two detectives attempting to solve the kidnapping and murder of two children in 1980 over the span of two and a half decades. The story sticks to three main timelines in the years 1980, 1990 and 2015.
After debuting the first two episodes to start the season, the outlook was pretty good. The third season smartly took some ideas from the first season and expanded into new territory. While Ali’s performance involved some wigs and makeup, in the same vein of Matthew McConaughey’s character’s famous look from season one, Ali so far has gone mostly in the opposite direction. Subtle and controlled, even when he acts scenes in his character’s oldest timeline who is suffering from severe memory loss, Ali has done a great job of balancing performing high-concept moments with the simple procedural ones that come with any police television show.
Most importantly, the first two episodes stayed relatively grounded. Rather than focusing solely on themes of evil and time and going as highbrow as the first season, the third season aimed to show you it could just do the work it needed. Much of the first two episodes had classic moments from procedural genre television, but were incredibly well-written.
On top of that, the show started out balancing three timelines well, keeping everything straightforward and each timeline relevant. In the 1980 timeline, with partial thanks to well-done production design, we were able to explore the world of this rural Arkansas community as they grieve, in the 1990 timeline we quickly learned that one of the victims is still alive and in the 2015 timeline we were curious as to how it all came together.
Overall, the first two episodes seemed like they properly mixed the successful parts of what worked in past seasons of the show and were able to apply them and learn from their mistakes.
Unfortunately though, these two most recent episodes have started to suggest that the practice of reusing certain notes can be largely attributed to a lack of creativity.
The last two episodes have been incredibly stagnant. In the first two episodes, in order to get a sense of the whole town and world, the show set out a wide net of characters, including secondary characters who help add some reality and depth to the town. Despite them being secondary characters, we’ve spent large amounts of time with them, such as Brett Woodard, the trash man. Even though viewers have a fair bit of knowledge on characters like Ed, they cannot yet determine why he is relevant to the case, and even with this background, it still feels like Ed lacks any depth. With all these different characters to follow, it seems like much of the show is just exposition rather than narrative progress.
Another mistake seems to be simultaneously using the three timelines. In the first season of the show, the narrative used two timelines. For a majority of the first season the most recent timeline was mostly just a vehicle to enter the story of the original case, and once we got up to date in that timeline we moved forward with the most recent timeline as our main focus. The structure may have seemed complex, yet keeping the narratives rigidly connected and linear allowed everything to feel comprehensive.
This season has decided to flash back and forth between not just two but three separate timelines, leaving nuggets of knowledge along the way to try and maintain our focus and interest. The problem is that each timeline is deep enough to be its own season of True Detective and because we have to spend time servicing each timeline, we barely make any larger progress in the grand scheme of the story.
What is really frustrating is that the case is moving at a glacial pace. If the audience just watched the investigation in the 1980 timeline, little has been done to solve the case or at least get it to the end result when the case is reopened in 1990. Two episodes in a row have gone by, and while we have seen our two lead detectives do a decent amount of investigating, no interesting leads have arisen. The investigation in the 1990 timeline has just gotten back underway, and based on what we know in the 2015 timeline, the case was not solved then either. So halfway through the season, viewers still have no lead and very few pieces of evidence to keep us as an audience intrigued.
The two past seasons of “True Detective” have had their good and bad moments, and it seems that this third season will be no different.