Mahershala Ali as the detective Wayne Hays in True Detective Season 3HBO

When True Detective arrived on television in 2014, it somehow felt both seismic and familiar. The HBO series was the oldest kind of small-screen story—a cop show following one mysterious case—given a crisp, cinematic form. Yes, there were otherworldly embellishments woven into the tale of the detectives Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) on the trail of a serial killer. But there was also a confidence behind the camera and a thoughtfulness to the two lead performances that made the show so special, even though it wound its way to a surprisingly ordinary conclusion.

Then, in 2015, came True Detective Season 2, which was wild, woolly, and largely incomprehensible. It was stuffed with big stars (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn) but hinged on a story that was as hilariously grim as it was impossible to understand. California real-estate development, a uniquely zoned industrial city, and very male-centric notions of fertility and parenthood were all swirled up in the central whodunit. In general, Nic Pizzolatto’s show had committed the grand error of quickly becoming a parody of itself, and even though the ratings barely dipped, the prospect of future seasons seemed to dim.

Now, after four years of True Detective’s brand power slowly fading, Pizzolatto has returned with a third installment, and it’s clear that the creator and writer has learned some useful lessons. For one, he’s simplified the show, paring back the ensemble and focusing mostly on one haunted gumshoe, the detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), as he investigates the disappearance of two children in the Arkansas Ozarks. On top of that, Pizzolatto has embraced many of the story elements that made the first season such a success, including three shifting timelines and a more Southern Gothic feel.

Yet the original magic is not quite back, and perhaps it never will be. True Detective broke onto the American TV landscape when it still seemed possible for the entire country to screech to a halt and obsess over a show together. It was the macabre details of that first season (which fans extrapolated in all kinds of Lovecraftian directions) that helped it stick out, along with McConaughey’s mesmerizing, soulful performance. True Detective Season 3 is a little more workmanlike and less baroque, perhaps too eager to prove that it can tell a legible story again. But it’s anchored by Ali’s terrific work in the lead role—a little more restrained than stars past, though just as captivating.

The season’s main mystery is this: In 1980, Ali’s Detective Hays, a state policeman in northwest Arkansas, is tasked with finding two missing children, whose parents, Tom (Scoot McNairy) and Lucy (Mamie Gummer), are broken-down, regretful screwups, mostly interested in blaming each other for their loss. Wayne is accompanied by his gruff partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), but just as crucial is the connection Wayne forms with the kids’ teacher, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), who takes her own interest in the case.

The show also flits forward to 1990, when the case is being reopened after the discovery of new evidence. At this point in time, Wayne seems haunted by past mistakes, while Amelia has become a true-crime expert and is writing a definitive tome on the disappearances. Then True Detective jumps forward again, to 2015. Wayne is now an older man plagued by memory loss and dementia. He’s trying to hold on to the details of a case he’s never been able to escape, while working toward some final, crucial revelation as he’s interviewed for a documentary series on the missing kids.

Ray Fisher and Mahershala Ali in True Detective (Warrick Page / Netflix)

It’s the same fungible timeline that Season 1 deployed, but here it has purpose beyond plotting, showing viewers the steady (and tragic) disintegration of Wayne’s mind and dropping hints that his recollections might not be as steady as they seem. In one scene set in 1980, Wayne pokes through a potential suspect’s house, finds himself alone in a room, and then suddenly looks at the camera, saying plaintively, “I’m ready to go now. I don’t want to be here.” Cut to 2015, when an older Wayne is trying to beg out of an interview. Pizzolatto, who largely wrote the series himself, but this time collaborated with the TV legend David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) on the overarching plotting, uses these cuts as shocking little jabs at the audience, and Ali successfully conveys a deep fog of confusion hovering behind Wayne’s eyes as the years wear on.

The biggest problem I had with Season 3 was the primary mystery. HBO provided five episodes of eight to critics, and I’m still unsure if I’m invested in the actual disappearances. Wayne is a tremendously affecting figure, unbound by many of the usual clichés of genius detectives (his cockiness, for the most part, sits in quiet reserve), and his relationship with Amelia is deeply felt enough that it hurts when fissures between them begin to show. But five hours in, whatever conspiracy Wayne is plumbing remains obscure, and it still seems as if there are important revelations needed to fill in the gaps between timelines. For its first half, True Detective’s third season aimlessly plods through details that don’t seem to matter (though they may later). The look and aesthetic of the series remain enthralling, and Ali is one of the best working screen actors. But those qualities might not be enough to return the show to the zeitgeist.

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