At HBO, when one murder-mystery door closes, another opens. Viewers of Sunday night’s thrilling Sharp Objects finale were rewarded with the first trailer for True Detective Season 3, starring Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and … [checks notes] well, there are definitely other people in the cast (Stephen Dorff! Carmen Ejogo! Scoot McNairy!), but this teaser made it clear this will be the Mahershala Ali Show. That’s not a bad thing; far from it: A series hoping to recapture its former glory should rely on the strengths of one of the world’s most magnetic performers.
The second season of True Detective aired in 2015; however, the last watchable season of True Detective ran in 2014. There are few shows with a contrast—between an Emmy-nominated, universally acclaimed first season and a second season so laughably bad it was more useful for meme-creation than actual viewing—so jarring that it nearly destroyed the entire enterprise.
The magic that creator Nic Pizzolatto found in the show’s inaugural season—juggling two distinct timelines, a compelling mystery, three dynamic lead performances from Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, and Michelle Monaghan, and a six-minute single-shot take that’s still geeked about to this day—was probably going to be impossible to replicate, but nobody expected the second season to be downright terrible. Despite corralling A-list stars in Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Tim Riggins himself, Taylor Kitsch, True Detective Season 2 became mired in … a complicated real estate development deal; long, pensive stares through the haze of cigarette smoke; and a big sex party filmed in a style that can best be described as Discount David Lynch. “Boring” was the word thrown out most frequently—a Jimmy Kimmel Mean Tweet described Farrell’s lead detective as “depressed couch farts.”
The Season 2 reception was so bad, it seemed like True Detective wouldn’t even get a shot at redemption—worse yet, few people would’ve cared after the sour taste that season left. Three years later, and the Ali-led teaser for Season 3 is trying its best to give the series a PR makeover and remind fans of what made the first season so effective. From the familiar setting (Season 1 was set in Louisiana and Season 3 will be in the Ozarks) to the multiple timelines (Season 3 will have three different time periods to mine from) to Ali’s detective’s McConaugheyian ramblings (a taste: “My whole brain’s a bunch of missing pieces”), True Detective appears to be doubling down on everything that worked so well the first time. If you thought that washed, Lone Star–chugging Rust Cohle was depressing, I present: Mahershala Ali crying in old-person makeup.
The vaguely intoned mystery driving Ali’s character—an Arkansas detective named Wayne Hays—is a missing persons case that appears to involve a couple of children and a patchwork of clues that’ll take decades to unravel. That should suit the series’ Reddit sleuth fan base, which was once enraptured by Season 1’s tale of the “Yellow King” to the point of parody.
As such, the mood around True Detective Season 3 can be best described as cautious optimism. All the promising pieces are in place for the captivating anthology series to return to form—when January comes around, we’ll get to see if Pizzolatto cracked the code again.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.