‘True Detective’ Successfully Returns Following its Original Formula

Three years after its apparent cancellation, this gritty drama returns to HBO with a vengeance.

click to enlarge Mahershala Ali (left) as Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West in "True Detective." - Warrick Page
Warrick Page
Mahershala Ali (left) as Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West in "True Detective."
True Detective (9 p.m. Sundays, HBO) is back more than three years after its apparent cancellation. After a fateful second season, the series returns with a vengeance, capturing the compelling drama and grit of the first season that made the crime anthology such a popular hit.

Creator, director and writer Nic Pizzolatto features a similar formula to season one, following a pair of investigators as they grapple with an unsolved mystery over the course of three different time periods. The focus centers on Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) — as a homicide detective in 1980, a desk-bound cop in 1990 and a retiree still plagued by the case in 2015. Hays’ partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) courses different trajectory over the years, but he, too, continues to be pulled back to a disturbing case they could never quite crack.

In 1980, a pair of young siblings, Will and Julie Purcell, disappears from a neighborhood in the Ozarks. At this point, Hays, a former deep reconnaissance operative in the Vietnam War is more of the soft-spoken “good cop.” His junior partner West, also a veteran, doesn’t hesitate to rough up a suspect, though neither detective is squeaky-clean. When Will’s body is discovered, it appears Julie has been kidnapped. She is never found.

Ten years later, new evidence emerges. When the duo teams up again to reopen the case, West is now a lieutenant while Hays has been demoted to desk duty. The case clearly still affects Hays to this day; he’s drinking more and is, at times, overly worried about his own children’s safety. Meanwhile his wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) — who was the teacher of the Purcell kids when she first met Hays during the original investigation — finds success writing a book about the crime.

In the most contemporary time, it’s as if that book haunts Hays just as much as the case itself. We find him being interviewed for a true crime TV series, which feels very realistic. You really feel for Hays — his wife is dead, his daughter is estranged and he’s experiencing significant memory loss and hallucinations, despite being in apparent good health. How can he possibly find a new break in the case when he doesn’t remember what happened only moments before?

The three timelines are easy to navigate, as this story isn’t as overwrought as in the first season. “Time is a flat circle” be damned — with Pizzolatto showing a bit more restraint, audiences get something straightforward, but filled with enough twists and turns to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The incomparable Ali — who won an Oscar for supporting actor in Moonlight and is nominated for another for Green Book — skillfully depicts an unraveling investigator who desperately wants to live a simple life, but has just endured too much. As a black man in law enforcement, he experiences a particular struggle with middle-America racism, even if he doesn’t always recognize it.

Dorff superbly balances his partner as West. It’s Hays’ story, but he plays a significant role. And hats off to the makeup department, who do a fantastic job aging its characters, especially in a time when we see more series portraying different ages a la This Is Us.

True Detective manages to tackle some heavy themes — war and what it does to people, memory and how it fails us, the satanic occult versus the quieter evil that exists, the many shades of racism that persist — that are as significant to a fictional story taking place in the ’80s as they are to the real world today.

As the season rolls on, connections to the first installment grow more obvious on screen — in the 2015 storyline, the interviewer specifically mentions the case to Hays, revealing a news clipping with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s characters pictured. Could the two twisted cases be intertwined? They certainly exist in the same universe, but will Hays and West pick up where Rust and Marty left off? Could they track down the true Yellow King? True Detective could go from flat circle to full circle.

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