One of the joys of a TV anthology series is that every season represents a fresh start.
HBO’s True Detective needed one, and after a long timeout it gets it on Sunday with the premiere of a third eight-episode installment that so far deserves to stand apart from the (mostly) critically adored original — a murky, occasionally magical, mystery tour that became a phenomenon five years ago — as much as it does from the forgettable season of 2015.
It’s still hard for me to separate Nic Pizzolatto’s first True Detective from the Lost-like puzzle it became for many viewers. But I’d be thrilled if this season spawned fewer theories and instead drew appreciation for the tightly wound performance of Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Green Book) as Arkansas police detective Wayne Hays. His take on Hays enhances rather than overwhelms a story intriguing enough to justify the show’s 35-year timeline.
In Sunday’s two-episode opener, written by Pizzolatto and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, 12-year-old Will Purcell (Phoenix Elkin), and his 10-year-old sister, Julie (Lena McCarthy), of West Finger, Ark., ride off on their bikes about 4 in the afternoon one November day in 1980 and never come home.
Hays and fellow detective Roland West (Stephen Dorff) answer the frantic call of the children’s father, Tom (Scoot McNairy, Halt and Catch Fire), beginning an investigation that will reverberate for decades, with a revisiting of the case in 1990, and Hays' memory-challenged participation in a true-crime documentary in 2015.
Along the way, we see his relationship with Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo, Selma), the schoolteacher-turned-writer who becomes his wife, go from sweetly tentative to sadly complicated as the case that’s eating him alive becomes her ticket to a successful new career.
Pizzolatto wrote most of the season, collaborating with David Milch (Deadwood) on the fourth episode, and with Graham Gordy on the sixth, and he directed two of the episodes.
The multiple timelines are by now a familiar device, but they’re particularly effective in dealing with the question of memory, that unreliable narrator we all carry with us, and on which so many stories turn.
Hays, who by 2015 will be experiencing symptoms of dementia, is either struggling to remember or to forget something, and the only thing that’s clear to me about that is that both those things might be true in the same day.
There are the things that help us peg events in time (“I remember it was the day Steve McQueen died,” he says in 1990 of the day the children disappeared), the lies and misunderstandings that eventually may overwrite reality, and then the deepening horror of encountering, more and more, the blank spaces where memories used to live.
People who enjoy the more bizarre aspects of Pizzolatto’s crime stories will find things to chew on here, but the mystery also works as a story unfolding, and maybe misdirecting us, across time, as we try to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
The pairing of Ali and Dorff doesn’t quite match the charismatic craziness and humor of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in a car together, but their conversations also don’t overpower the case they’re supposed to be working. The more interesting match, anyway, is that of Ali and Ejogo, whose character, Hays eventually comes to acknowledge, proves to be an excellent investigator in her own right.
His unease with the true-crime genre that helps launch Amelia’s writing career seems timely, as does the character of documentary filmmaker Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), who tells Hays that Amelia’s book is “considered a classic of literary crime nonfiction,” and who introduces the bewildered retiree to the down-the-rabbit-hole marvels of investigation-by-internet.
But then, True Detective magazine was feeding the hunger for nonfiction crime stories for nearly 70 years before the invention of the web browser.
True Detective doesn’t ignore Hays' position as a black man in the South in a job like his, but the character, a politically conservative Vietnam veteran, chooses how, and with whom, he’ll talk about race.
There’s a conversation in Sunday’s premiere between Hays and Amelia, who’d taught the missing boy. They’ve just met for the first time, at the school, and, sure, they’ve noticed that in their work lives, at least, they’re two black people in an area that’s mostly white.
“How is it here? You know?” Hays asks her.
She rolls her eyes. “It’s fine. It’s good, really, for what it is. I hear something now and then. They’re all poor around here, that’s the main thing.”
“Whatcha hear now and then?”
“You know. The word in the hallway or something. They’re careful around me,” she says.
Contrast that with the exchange 35 years later between Hays and Gadon’s white filmmaker character, who asks whether he’d ever felt his views on the Purcell case had been “discounted because of your race.”
“Not particularly. Why?” he replies, though we’ll see otherwise.
"Well, I’m interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and racist structures,” she says, rattling off the jargon as Hays glances back at his son, Henry (Ray Fisher). The two exchange a look, and Henry just nods.
If the five episodes I’ve seen aren’t enough to make this a conclusive rave, it’s only because I haven’t seen the conclusion. Three episodes are plenty for any show this freighted with expectations to go off the rails. But right now I can’t wait to see what happens next, or, more to the point, what’s happened already.