Lat­est True De­tec­tive chap­ter fails to in­spire

HBO crime show run­ning on fumes


HBO still thinks there’s some­thing truly great to be found in the ru­ins of True De­tec­tive, but why?

It’s prob­a­bly be­cause the pon­der­ous crime an­thol­ogy’s first sea­son caused such a stir when it pre­mièred five (yes, five) years ago, and view­ers be­came en­rap­tured by its ex­tra-mo­ti­vated star, Matthew McConaughey, who spun gold from the less-im­pres­sive straw of cre­ator Nic Piz­zolotto’s me­an­der­ingly grim, pre­ten­tiously philo­soph­i­cal and even hack­neyed no­tion of what a pres­tige crime drama set in the south­ern U.S. ought to look like. Not all crit­ics got on board, but a firm rul­ing came down any­how, along with some of­fi­cial ac­co­lades: True De­tec­tive was re­aldeal, award-win­ning, se­ri­ous tele­vi­sion — or some­thing close to it.

Things fell apart in the sum­mer of

2015, as view­ers spit back the halfchewed mess of True De­tec­tive’s bizarrely struc­tured sec­ond sea­son, which, to keep us on our toes, was about civil-ser­vant em­bez­zle­ment and kinky mur­der in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Vince Vaughn played a talk­a­tive crime boss seek­ing to do le­git­i­mate busi­ness with the state’s high-speed rail project — a per­for­mance and sto­ry­line so re­viled that they over­shad­owed the fairly good per­for­mances from the ac­tors (Colin Far­rell, es­pe­cially) who played the de­tec­tives.

Usu­ally when ev­ery­one — in­clud­ing net­work brass — shares a dis­ap­point­ment so in­tense, it’s the last we have to hear of it.

Nope. True De­tec­tive is back with a dou­ble-episode, third-sea­son pre­mière tonight, and a con­spic­u­ous, al­most self-con­scious at­tempt to re­sem­ble its for­mer self.

Un­for­tu­nately, it’s no big sur­prise that things drag along in a very True De­tec­tive sort of way, at least un­til the sea­son is more than half­way fin­ished (there are eight episodes in all, five of which were made avail­able to crit­ics). Even when viewed with an open mind, watch­ing the show is a lot like com­ing home and dis­cov­er­ing you for­got to set your slow­cooker to ac­tu­ally cook the meal.

Wear­ing old-man makeup for one of the show’s three plot points on a

35-year time­line, Ma­her­shala Ali (who won an Os­car for Moon­light in

2017 and a Golden Globe the other night for Green Book) stars as Wayne Hays, a re­tired, 70-year-old Arkansas state po­lice de­tec­tive who, in the year

2015, is strug­gling with symp­toms of de­men­tia and mem­ory loss.

Fore­most in Hays’ mind, how­ever, is the Novem­ber 1980 kid­nap­ping-mur­der case of two sib­lings in the shabby, work­ing-class town of West Fin­ger, where a 12-year-old boy, Will Pur­cell, and his 10-year-old sis­ter, Julie, were last seen rid­ing their bikes in the late af­ter­noon. Hays is as­signed to the case with his part­ner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), yet nei­ther man seems es­pe­cially driven to de­liver air­tight po­lice work.

Scoot McNairy (Halt and Catch Fire) co-stars as Tom Pur­cell, the miss­ing chil­dren’s dis­traught fa­ther, while Mamie Gum­mer blows in as Lucy Pur­cell, the hard-drink­ing, es­tranged wife and mother who walked out on Tom and the kids months ear­lier. Neigh­bours are ques­tioned, nearby fields are combed, and soon enough (slight spoiler alert here) the body of one of the Pur­cell chil­dren is found, while the other is miss­ing and pre­sumed dead.

For a mo­ment or two in the first few hours, it seems as if Piz­zolotto may be work­ing up a sub­dued par­al­lel to the real-life case of the West Mem­phis Three, the teenagers who were wrongly con­victed of the 1993 mur­ders of three young Arkansas boys, which hyped-up prose­cu­tors at­trib­uted to sa­tanic in­flu­ences. (In­trigued? Use your HBO ac­cess to go back and watch the Par­adise Lost doc­u­men­taries.)

This is nowhere near that in­trigu­ing, but if True De­tec­tive ex­cels at any­thing, it would be the art­ful way it sets a mood and de­picts a nowhere. The dirty south is brought to life (and death) in bleak and back­wa­ter hues, keep­ing in mind that part of the ef­fort here is to make way for an alt-blues playlist. By now, True De­tec­tive view­ers should be primed to see style pre­vail over sub­stance — the only ques­tion is to what de­gree the story might get a chance to grab us, too.

A third prong of the nar­ra­tive takes place in 1990, nearly 10 years af­ter the orig­i­nal case, when new ev­i­dence re­opens ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing emo­tional wounds.

Hays, of course, has ap­par­ently been plagued by doubt the en­tire time, spurred in part by a lo­cal school teacher and love in­ter­est, Amelia Rear­don (Car­men Ejogo), who be­comes so in­trigued by the case that, by the time she and Hays are mar­ried with chil­dren in 1990, she has writ­ten a non-fiction book about its grisly na­ture and loose ends.

If it seems I’m be­ing vague, it’s out of my sworn duty to pro­tect what lit­tle ac­tion and story de­vel­op­ment re­main. Ali gives a strong per­for­mance at all three points of Hays’ life — first as a young de­tec­tive do­ing his best to tamp down some Viet­nam War-re­lated trauma; then, a decade later, as a hus­band and fa­ther whose rep­u­ta­tion hangs on a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion; and later as a pre­oc­cu­pied re­tiree whose mem­o­ries and de­duc­tions live in a fog of re­morse. “With what­ever brains I got left,” Hays de­clares, “I want to fin­ish this.”

What’s more re­mark­able is how Ali el­e­vates the ma­te­rial with­out much help from the scripts. Piz­zolotto has been per­suaded, for the most part, to lose the fancy para­graphs of mono­logues that de­fined McConaughey’s True De­tec­tive (re­mem­ber “time is a flat cir­cle” and all that?) and re­placed them with your ba­sic, ser­vice­ably noir pat­ter: old cops curs­ing at one an­other, spouses snarling at each other and sus­pects cryp­ti­cally deny­ing any wrong­do­ing.

The lack of imag­i­na­tion ex­tends to the fe­male char­ac­ters, which was one of True De­tec­tive’s orig­i­nal flaws. “I have the soul of a whore,” Gum­mer’s Lucy tells Ejogo’s char­ac­ter at one point. “What kind of woman hates the only things that have ever shown her love?”

In words and mo­ments like this, it’s clear that Piz­zolotto still thinks like a nov­el­ist, which is what he was be­fore HBO first bought his idea for True De­tec­tive and made him a showrun­ner. His show strug­gles to find its sweet spot as a work of tele­vi­sion, maybe be­cause it’s con­ceived with a pace and style that is bet­ter suited to the page.

It can’t be easy to learn how to make TV on such high-pro­file terms. My hunch is that if True De­tec­tive aired on USA, TNT or even HBO-owned Cine­max, the stakes wouldn’t be as high as they are, and half of us would have never heard of the show. Hope springs eter­nal for True De­tec­tive, but so does the let­down.


Ac­tors Stephen Dorff (left) and Ma­her­shala Ali do their best to breathe life into an oth­er­wise flat of­fer­ing in the lat­est in­stal­ment of HBO’s True De­tec­tive.

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