Review: TRUE DETECTIVE Season Three Is A Difficult Watch

true detective ali dorff
Photo Credit: Warrick Page.

True Detective has everything working in its favor: a charismatic lead in Mahershala Ali, the promise of an intriguing mystery, and a story with the potential for emotional resonance. Despite this, Season Three never manages to come together.

After a not-so-well-received second season, the anthology show True Detective returns with a brand new cast and story. This season focuses on a detective that is investigating a family torn apart when their children go missing. It stars Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, and Carmen Ejogo.

One of the biggest put-offs that this series has is that it is so ridiculously bleak. It takes a while to get involved in the story because there is so little hope from the beginning. This show is truly exhausting to watch. This isn’t to say that it’s bad — the series just isn’t something that is particularly enjoyable.

The narrative structure of the season is quite complex. It takes place over three time periods: 1980 — when the crime first occurred, 1990 — when a new discovery is made on the case, and 2015 — when a documentarian is interviewing the protagonist. These timelines are woven together to create the mystery, with reveals in one part of the story tying to twists in other parts.

true detective ali ejogo
Photo Credit: Warrick Page.

Unfortunately, this impressively complex narrative form is only used to hide the lackluster and straightforward story. Apart from the purposefully disjointed structure, there isn’t much to make the story stand out from every other neo-noir film or show. The pacing is slow, with there being an average of one big reveal per episode. You need to have a lot of patience to like this season.

Furthermore, there are quite a few setups that don’t really pay off. Often, a plot point would be teased at the end of one episode and the next episode would pick up with a different timeline. This felt anticlimactic. The purpose of a cliffhanger ending is to leave the audience in suspense and wanting to keep watching. When you return to something completely different, it wrecks that suspense.

However, the series does have quite a few things that work very well. The chief success of this season is creating characters about whom the audience cares. The protagonist, Detective Wayne Hays, is an extremely complex character. It is interesting to see how he changes over the film’s three timelines. Hays is essentially a different person in each of the parts.

Ali is great as Detective Hays. He delivers one of the best performances of his career, nailing each of the three personalities. Perhaps most impressive is his portrayal of the older version of the character, as this required the greatest transformation. This role allowed him to show his range quite well, particularly after the first two episodes.

true detective ali
Photo Credit: Warrick Page.

The other character that is written phenomenally is Tom, the father of the missing children. His character is what gives the story its emotional resonance. Scoot McNairy’s performance is great. He starts off very subtly and begins to really hit the emotional beats in the fourth episode. Tom’s storyline is the most compelling as it requires the least work on the part of the audience to sympathize with him. Who wouldn’t feel bad for a father who is going through that?

In technical terms, the show is pretty well-made. The visuals are strong, their dark and gritty nature matching the tone of the story. The cinematography by Germain McMicking does a great job of using close-ups to capture the emotions of the characters. The score by T Bone Burnett is also well-done, but overused. The show has a tendency to rely on the music to create suspense, and was sometimes ineffective in so doing.

Overall, Season Three of True Detective is intriguing, but not as great as it could have been. The performances are strong, but the story is relatively plain and the tone is overwhelming. Still, there is enough there to make it worth a watch.

Season Three of True Detective debuts on HBO on January 13 at 9/8c. (Five out of eight episodes were reviewed.)

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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