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What Is ‘True Detective’ Without Its Original Architect? Hint: Still Very Good.

‘Night Country’ is the first season of the series without direct involvement from creator Nic Pizzolatto. And if this season is any indication, the ‘True Detective’ brand still has plenty of juice without him.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Over the years, True Detective writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto has made himself something of a punch line. In 2020, Pizzolatto posted on Instagram about how he would tackle a Batman adaptation—his take, he explained, would not wallow in Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma, but instead treat his transformation into the Caped Crusader as the “pinnacle of human achievement.” “If he had some time to strategize,” Pizzolatto concluded, “Batman could credibly defeat God.” (Can I donate to the Batman v God: Dawn of Justice Kickstarter?) Pizzolatto was once described as having “the aura of a bear or some other species of dangerous animal,” and that was by one of his friends. Pizzolatto is also widely believed to be the inspiration for BoJack Horseman’s Flip McVicker (voiced by Rami Malek), a prestige TV showrunner whose police procedural, Philbert, checks all the nihilistic boxes. “The darkness is a metaphor,” McVicker explains in BoJack’s fifth season, “for darkness.” Meanwhile, this is how Pizzolatto posed for one of the shots in his Hollywood Reporter profile in 2014:

Love him or hate him—to be clear, I love this weirdo—Pizzolatto marches to the beat of his own drum, sometimes to his detriment. True Detective has had some accomplished directors at the helm, including Cary Joji Fukunaga for the entirety of Season 1 and Jeremy Saulnier at the start of the third season. But both filmmakers’ experiences on the series were soured by creative clashes with Pizzolatto, who established a reputation as a prickly, uncompromising collaborator. As a result, True Detective is inextricably linked with Pizzolatto’s brooding sensibilities: You get the good (Seasons 1 and 3) with the bad (Season 2). All of which raises the question: What, exactly, is True Detective when Pizzolatto is removed from the equation?

On Sunday night, HBO debuts True Detective: Night Country, the fourth season of the crime anthology, which marks a major departure from its predecessors. This time around, Pizzolatto’s involvement is reduced to an executive producer credit—he’s off creating a small-screen adaptation of The Magnificent Seven for Amazon’s Prime Video. In his stead comes Mexican filmmaker Issa López, best known stateside for her 2017 horror film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, which has been favorably compared to the genre efforts of her esteemed countryman Guillermo del Toro. But while True Detective has changed hands, the show’s moody trademarks remain intact: lead detectives with tortured, overlapping histories; a mysterious case that could be connected to an unsolved murder from the past; eerie supernatural undertones. If Night Country is any indication, the True Detective brand still has plenty of juice without its original architect.

Night Country takes place in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, in the lead-up to Christmas: a time of the year when the region experiences around-the-clock darkness. (One might say the darkness is a metaphor … for darkness.) The premiere opens at the Tsalal Arctic Research Station on the outskirts of town, where eight scientists are working on something related to the area’s permafrost. The last we see of the scientists, one of them starts violently convulsing before ominously warning the others that “she’s awake.” By the time a delivery driver arrives at Tsalal to resupply the base, everyone has vanished—only a severed tongue on the kitchen floor remains. (The creepy research station vibes evoke The Thing; perceptive viewers will notice a DVD of the movie in one of the common rooms.)

From there, Ennis police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) is on the case, which leads to more questions than answers. By the end of the premiere, the missing scientists are found with their naked corpses huddled together in a giant block of ice—a gnarly sight that’s like an arctic spin on a Bosch painting. The fact that one of the scientists has a crooked spiral insignia (!) on his body leads state trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), Danvers’s estranged former partner, to believe the deaths are connected to the unsolved murder of an Iñupiat Alaskan woman from six years ago. Danvers and Navarro try to set aside their differences—key word, try—and crack open a case that could have far-reaching implications for the town.

In López’s own words, Night Country is a “dark mirror” of True Detective’s first season, swapping a male-led murder mystery in the sweltering Louisiana heat for a female-centric outing in freezing conditions that wouldn’t feel out of place on Hoth. (The series was shot in Iceland.) But Night Country has plenty of strengths unique to its story, starting with Ennis itself. Night Country does a great job of fleshing out the town’s complicated history: how so many of the residents rely on a mining company for employment and why the Native population blames the operation for polluting the land. (The drinking water in the Native communities is no longer safe, and there has been an increase in stillborn births.) Then there’s Night Country’s casting, which speaks for itself. Foster’s involvement will inevitably conjure up memories of her Oscar-winning turn in The Silence of the Lambs, but Danvers is no Clarice Starling. She’s a combative, short-tempered individual who seems to have pissed off just about everyone in Ennis: As Danvers’s stepdaughter laments, Danvers saves her worst behavior for the people she cares about most.

Night Country’s real X factor, however, is Foster’s costar, Reis, a former professional boxer now in her first major role. Reis brings a quiet ferocity to Navarro, who must balance her responsibilities as a police officer with her Iñupiat roots in the community, posing the question of whether she can serve one without betraying the other. Navarro’s side of the story is also where Night Country leans most into the supernatural. Navarro experiences some downright terrifying visions of ghosts throughout the six-episode season—as the locals believe, the time of the year Ennis is shrouded in darkness is when the boundary between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. Like in True Detective’s first season, which embraced cosmic horror while remaining grounded in the evils perpetrated by men, it’s best to appreciate Night Country’s supernatural elements as eerie tone-setters for the hard-nosed detective work.

Of course, Night Country’s rich, atmospheric world-building starts with its new showrunner. López hasn’t had anywhere near this level of mainstream exposure in her career before, and she doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Directing and writing (or cowriting) all six episodes of Night Country, López reaffirms that True Detective works best as auteur-driven television. It’s little surprise, then, that Night Country is the franchise’s strongest outing since Season 1—the last time a filmmaker was handed the reins for an entire season. (As gripping as Pizzolatto’s writing can be, True Detective’s first season wouldn’t have become such a cultural phenomenon without Fukunaga; that six-minute tracking shot is as awesome as you remember.)

If there is the potential for more True Detective after Night Country, perhaps that should be the template: a crime anthology with an auteurist sensibility that allows different filmmakers to put their own stamps on the series. In the meantime, Night Country firmly establishes itself as the first can’t-miss show of 2024: a potent reminder of why True Detective, when done right, is unlike anything else on television. And to anyone who’s soured on True Detective since it premiered to near-universal acclaim a decade ago, you won’t regret giving the series another shot. Contrary to Ennis, the new season won’t leave you cold.