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True Detective season 3: Can the show that refused to play by the rules return to its former greatness?

True Detective season 3: Can the show that refused to play by the rules return to its former greatness?

A traumatised policeman, haunted by a grisly unsolved crime from deep in his past, returns to the scene of the wrongdoing to make amends. Along the way, he spouts streams of cod-philosophy while the camera serves up sumptuous slices of American gothic: menacing shrubbery, kids in creepy slow-motion, the sun idling ominously beyond the tree…

A traumatised policeman, haunted by a grisly unsolved crime from deep in his past, returns to the scene of the wrongdoing to make amends. Along the way, he spouts streams of cod-philosophy while the camera serves up sumptuous slices of American gothic: menacing shrubbery, kids in creepy slow-motion, the sun idling ominously beyond the tree line. 

This was the formula that, five years ago, turned season one of HBO’s True Detective into an instant phenomenon. It is also, by remarkable coincidence, the framing device for season three – debuting belatedly on HBO in the United States on Sunday, and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Monday.

In 2014, the deathly serious detective was Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, a pony-tailed amateur philosopher unable to walk away from a murderous conspiracy he had uncovered in deepest Louisiana decades earlier. 

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Stepping into his blood-spattered shoes for season three (after Colin Farrell unsuccessfully did so for season two, more on which later) is Mahershala Ali. The Oscar winner plays Arkansas state police detective Wayne Hays. We encounter him in the present day, in a state of psychological diminishment, and in flashbacks to the Nineties and early Eighties, and the unsolved disappearance of two children from the northern Ozarks region. 

Mahershala Ali in season three of ‘True Detective’ (HBO)

As Ali travels the timelines, he sports the mandatory shape-shifting haircut, and says things like, “Before you knew me, I wasn’t scared much”. Hays doesn’t quite match season one’s Cohle – who declared “time is a flat circle” while fashioning Blade Runner origami figures out of beer cans – but it looks like he’ll come close enough to spark the interest of fans of the original eight-episode run.

HBO needs True Detective to be a hit. Game of Thrones is about to torch its last castle, and given the shaky history of TV prequels, who is to say if the planned Westeros spin-off – set millennia prior to GoT – will light a spark? 

But you could argue that fans of the hackneyed TV thriller genre need True Detective even more. In 2019, the police procedural stands at a dead end, crying out for new ideas. Nordic noir has burnt itself out on frosty dialogue and attractive knitwear, its signatures reduced to cliches (when The Bridge’s Hans Rosenfeldt sought to export the formula with ITV’s Anna Friel vehicle Marcella, he remembered the dazzling pullovers but forgot the enticing mystery). 

The most recent season of Idris Elba’s Luther, meanwhile, was Grand Guignol pantomime. And hits such as Unforgotten and Broadchurch are too grounded in the everyday to engender real obsession. These are entertainments to be enjoyed and forgotten, not fizzling fuses to set alight the imagination. 

True Detective season one was different, and for the very specific reason that it straddled crime and horror. Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, a struggling novelist who’d escaped a strict religious upbringing in Louisiana, was a late arrival to TV, and thus seemingly oblivious to the rules by which he was supposed to play. 

So, working with director Cary Fukunaga, he made up his own. Cohle and his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) had their long meandering exchanges driving across the ominous Louisiana flatlands. The sacrificial cabal they stumbled upon felt like something out of Edgar Allan Poe rather than CSI. It was enough to make you swear off moody Nordics and gruff Brit-coppers for life. 

Just as fascinating were Cohle’s pronouncements on the insignificance of mankind, which could have come straight from the pages of writers Thomas Ligotti or HP Lovecraft. The message – that the universe doesn’t care about us, all our struggles utterly meaningless – was more chilling than any knife in the dark jump-scare.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in season one of ‘True Detective’ (HBO)

The deeper we went, the weirder it got, too. The ritualistic serial killer pursued by Cohle and Hart was revealed to be an acolyte of the King in Yellow – a mystical being originating in a gothic short story by the 19th century occult writer Robert Chambers. And to get to him, they had to follow a trail of reality-warping clues – the abandoned church over which Cohle sees a flock of birds twist into an arcane symbol, the crumbling school strewn with pagan effigies.

Ultimately, the killer was revealed to be a flesh and blood monster, the King in Yellow merely a boney effigy in a cave. Yet despite finally lacking a definitive spectral component, True Detective nonetheless pulled a singular feat of conjuring. From the traditional cop show raw materials – a dead woman, two mismatched detectives – it created something genuinely unsettling, and presented America’s rural margins as a terrifying psychosphere. 

There are reasons to suspect season three will attempt the same parlour trick. Ali’s Hays is partnered with Stephen Dorff’s Marty Hart-esque Detective Roland West, and the setting is another corner of hidden America – in this instance the Blair Witch Project-channelling woodlands of the Ozarks. Also returning is the original flashback device, with an aged version of Ali’s character recollecting the original investigation to a documentarian (while dealing with his own much diminished memory). 

True Detective Season three – trailer

This isn’t a show about witches or zombies. But, as with season one, Pizzolatto and thriller director Jeremy Saulnier – who oversaw the first two episodes – go out of their way to lend the everyday a patina of deep creepiness. It’s heightened – not in a silly, buckets-of-blood Luther way, but in a fashion that drills deep into the imagination. 

True Detective true believers will nonetheless sit down to the new season with considerable tentativeness. They were badly burnt by 2015’s second season – one of the sorriest eight hours of TV to ever mooch across the screen. Amid breathless anticipation and assembled against a ticking clock, the cobbled-together season featured a nonsense plot about stolen diamonds and a cast that included Colin Farrell’s Seventies porn moustache and a waxwork replica of Vince Vaughn as a gangster (where the real Vaughn had gone nobody can say). 

Season two’s failure, critically and in terms of ratings, was a gut punch to everyone who had invested so utterly in season one (especially those of us who had taken to Reddit to share our wildest conspiracy theories). It was nothing more than a melodramatic riff on the old cop show formula. 

Pizzolatto is not lacking in opinions about the importance of his work, and can respond sniffily to those who enjoy True Detective at the level of thinking person’s pulp. At the height of TD mania in 2014, he even took on the mantle of party-pooper-in-chief, insisting that viewers becoming entwined in the central mystery were missing the point of a show that was really all about the characters. 

Well, he was wrong. What made True Detective special was the haze of strangeness that hung about it like a supernatural mist. Let us join hands and mouth a ritualistic prayer in the hope that TD3 is every bit as weird and quietly deranged. 

True Detective season three begins on Sky Atlantic Monday at 9pm

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