Things fell apart in the summer of 2015, as viewers spit back the half-chewed 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 story line 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 premiere Sunday night 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 the show is viewed with an open mind, the experience is a lot like coming home and discovering you forgot to set your slow cooker 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’s 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. Neighbors 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 schoolteacher 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 nonfiction 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’s 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.
True Detective (two hours) returns with a double-episode premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.