Review: True Detective Season Three

The first season of True Detective is the television equivalent of Guns-n-Roses first album “Appetite for Destruction“. As Guns-n-Roses knows all too well, no matter how good anything is that follows, it will never be that good.

Nic Pizzolatto’s intelligent and dark detective series finally returned for a third season on HBO this past Sunday. Season three is top lined by Academy and Golden Globe winner Mahershala Ali, as Detective Warren Hayes, and Blu E cigarette spokesman Stephen Dorff (apparently borrowing Woody Harrelsons’s hair piece from season one), as Investigator Roland West.

E-cigarette spokesman to principal role in an esteemed television series is no easy task. And I used to think that Tracy Morgan was the luckiest man in entertainment.

The first two episodes, “The Great War and Modern Memory” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, paint the landscape of what is to come as they tell the story of two children that go missing in 1980’s Arkansas. These episodes establish the timeline, which covers three separate time periods (1980, 1990 and 2015). Like the terrain where the story takes place, the story is rather expansive. You also get a strong sense of foreboding that anything is possible . . . and probable.

Interestingly, there is a nod to the West Memphis 3 in episode one. Pizzolatto seems much more deliberate than cheeky, so I’m curious to see how that plays out. Like any good crime or mystery story, you’ll need to pay close attention to this series. If you’re looking for a crime drama that’s more linear, True Detective isn’t for you.

Nic Pizzolatto is the sole credited writer on all episodes in season one, he shares credit on two episodes in season two (with Scott Lasser) and two episodes in season three (with David Milch and Graham Gordy).

Similarly, season one had only one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, while season two had six directors and season three has three (Pizzolatto directing two). All said, despite the toggling time periods, I suspect a more cohesive story and vision to accompany this season: from what I’ve seen, I’m optimistic.

Now saying Mahershala Ali is a “good actor” is akin to saying Tom Brady is a “good quarterback”. Both of these men are two of the best in their profession. Period. And don’t start whinging about a reference to Tom Brady either. I could care less about Brady but I recognize he’s an amazing football player. And like Ali, I would challenge you to find someone better right now.

In every scene, and Ali is in most of them, he is firing on all cylinders and with his character covering three time periods, it gives him tremendous opportunity to show the man’s acting range. And like the story line itself, its expansive.

Stephen Dorff is fine (however odd it is to see him smoking a regular cigarette . . . by the way, people smoked A LOT in 1980). His character, at least so far, isn’t meant to be anything more than a partner. Not an equal. And Dorff’s West is a fine partner.

Scoot McNairy, from AMC’s brilliantly underrated Halt and Catch Fire, shines in the role of the anguished father. The cast is rounded out by many familiar faces, including Brandon Flynn who plays the dreamy drug addict Justin Foley in 13 Reasons Why. Give the stature of True Detective, not surprisingly, everyone has brought their A-game.

A big bummer is the vapid music that accompanies the show. It just doesn’t work, almost as though it was phoned in. It’s an unusual miss for T-Bone Burnett.

Another tiny complaint. A show this complex would benefit from binge viewing. Asking viewers to re-visit the complexity of a story that spans three time periods is a big ask, even with weekly re-caps. Maybe using Ali’s character in the early throes of Alzheimer’s is Pizzolatto’s way of going a little meta and suggesting that he gets it.

Like the current incarnation of Guns-n-Roses, True Detective season three is a return to form. Not perfect, but really good. The bad news is that this season won’t be as good as season one, that’s never gonna happen again. The good news is that it won’t be as odd (and that’s being generous) as season two.

If you’re a fan of the first season, you won’t be disappointed.

A version of this was published at, January 16, 2019.