True Detective is a flat circle. The beloved and beleaguered HBO drama is officially returning for a third season, confirming rumors that have been swirling around all year. Season 3 stars Mahershala Ali, who will play a state police detective from northwest Arkansas investigating a gruesome crime that will spawn a mystery that unfolds over decades, which should give him plenty of time to brood and stare pensively into the distance while plagiarizing quoting series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s favorite authors.
Pizzolatto wrote the entire upcoming season, minus the fourth episode, which he cowrote with David Milch, the creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood. Pizzolatto wrote the entirety of Season 1, but with pressure from HBO executives to produce the next installment in 14 months, he brought on other writers for Season 2. HBO isn’t making the same mistake this go around. Pizzolatto has more time to write and is even set to direct this season along with Jeremy Saulnier, who helmed 2016’s Green Room. There is currently no premiere date nor a timeline for when the show will begin production, which is just fine if more time is the difference between Season 3 resembling Season 1’s masterpiece rather than Season 2’s dumpster fire.
The third season is set in the Ozarks, the mountainous region spanning southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, southeastern Kansas, and a touch of northeastern Oklahoma. The Ozarks are in right now as the setting du jour for gritty crime dramas. In July, Netflix released the first season of Ozark, an antihero drama revolving around Jason Bateman laundering money (presumably through a banana stand) for a Mexican drug cartel in Missouri. For True Detective, the Ozarks are a welcome return for the series to a lower-profile region of the country. Season 1 was marked by stunning visuals of Louisiana’s landscapes, bogs, and bayous that gave every scene a haunting, grim wondrousness, in a part of America rarely depicted on television.
Meanwhile, Season 2 gave us time lapses of Los Angeles traffic. Without Cary Fukunaga, the mastermind behind those stunning Louisiana landscapes, the show’s visual identity took a hit. The Ozarks are an excellent place to recapture True Detective’s essence. The question now is whether Pizzolatto and Saulnier are up to the challenge.
Saulnier is an up-and-coming indie director who can hopefully re-inject the Fukunaga magic, but it’s Pizzolatto that could be a cause for concern. It’s surprising to see Pizzolato taking on more responsibility this season after convoluted writing threatened to ruin last season. Hopefully the additional time will alleviate the pressure of having to both write and direct. Season 1 of True Detective flourished with deep dives into the two main characters, that, when combined with the show’s unique visual creativity, produced amazing sequences like this six-minute, single-take tracking shot of a nighttime raid-turned-shootout.
After the first season’s in-depth character studies, Season 2 doubled the number of main characters and added four or five secondary characters per storyline, meaning you needed to keep track of over 20 names in Season 2. The story was so needlessly complex and poorly thought out that it hinged on the death of a nearly anonymous character (Remember Stan? Of course you don’t remember Stan). Simply put, the second season was lazy.
We don’t know yet how many episodes Pizzolatto is planning to direct, but keeping the visuals in the hands of a hungry indie director and letting Pizzolatto iron out a coherent plot seems to be the show’s best hope. Season 3 will have fewer characters, which is a good start, but it will also have three separate timelines, so there’s still plenty of room to screw it up. But with Ali set to lead, a can’t-miss setting, and the return of an indie directing vibe, all signs so far suggest that Season 3 is True Detective heading back toward its roots. Rust Cohle taught us that time is a flat circle. Everything that’s ever happened is destined to repeat again. Eventually, True Detective will be great again.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.