The third season of HBO’s crime anthology series True Detective bears a lot of weight on its shoulders. The show’s memorable first season, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, was a stellar southern gothic story that delved into morality and the nature of good and evil. Meanwhile the second season, with a bigger big-name cast and a more urban setting, seemed to lose its way. This latest instalment, starring Mahershala Ali as protagonist Wayne Hays, is trying to emulate the atmosphere of its first incarnation but whether it succeeds in this endeavour, I can’t really say. Two episodes in and although the aesthetics are on-point as they were in season one and Ali’s performance is riveting, the actual plot just falls short of what you would expect.
It doesn’t make sense that this should be the problem, what with Hays’ case being a child abduction and a child murder. This should be compelling and emotive television. But the problem with True Detective is that it has often prioritised style over substance, and this season is no different. The slow pace, although characteristic of the genre, just feels lethargic. With a story about missing children, you would expect for the stakes to be higher, for there to be just that bit more dynamism that’s so lacking here. It’s understandable to a degree. The second season’s lacklustre reviews have evidently made producers wary of straying too far from its tried and tested format, but I can’t help but feel that this story is the perfect one to push the pace with.
However, it’s far from bad television, and in fact there are some clever moments and themes explored within these first two episodes. This season is very introspective of the detective and crime genres, exploring perception, interpretation, and memory through three main timelines. In 2015, Wayne is an old man recounting his work on the case for a TV show called True Crime. He reminisces about his wife and lingers on her memory in front of the TV crew for too long; they want the gory details for their viewers to satiate their audience’s desire for crime stories. From there we flit back and forth to the initial investigation in the 80s when the Purcell children went missing, and also to ten years after the initial investigation where Wayne is part of a deposition likely to overturn the conviction for the Purcells’ murders after new evidence comes to light. Amongst all of this there are conflicting suspicions held by the people of West Finger and Wayne’s wife’s book about the case that made the Purcells’ disappearances famous. It is a show acutely aware of how integral perception and interpretation is, and it plays on this to profound effect.
I hope that the show doesn’t get too bogged down in its own aesthetics, when it does it moves too slowly, its dialogue is sparse in every way, and it fails to put the emphasis where it’s needed. But when the show is good, it’s really good, and it’s well worth ploughing through.