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Preview: "True Detective: Season Three" on HBO

New season of Gothic crime drama is the best yet.


So the big question is whether the new “True Detective” season on HBO is a return to Emmy-winning form after a disappointing second season. The answer, as fans may already know, is a resounding yes. After watching screeners of the first five episodes, I think this will probably be the best season of the crime anthology yet.

The third season, which premiered Sunday, Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. with the first two episodes, finds creator Nic Pizzolatto returning to the dark mechanics that made his first season so popular: intricate layers of suspicion and misdirection with an underlying bleak world view, set in a rural America at once expansive, menacing and nightmarish.

The latest installment is anchored, once again, by a complex relationship between two very different police partners: Roland West, a good ‘ole white boy with a conscience played by Stephen Dorff, and Wayne Hays, a black detective burdened by a terrible secret, played with a solemn gravitas by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. It's a captivating, multi-layered performance offering more proof that Ali is one of the best actors working today.

Ali plays Detective Hays in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2015, as a tortured old man in the early stages of what seems to be Alzheimer’s, still trying to piece together a murder and missing person case that was never solved. Side note: Whoever did the make-up for his elderly self should get all the awards; it’s fantastic, right down to the fine wrinkles and puffy bags. Ali is most memorable as his older self.

The mystery begins, like the first season, with a detective (Hays) being interviewed by investigators about his recollections of a particularly disturbing and perplexing case. Set in the Ozarks, the story revolves around the disappearance of two young children, a brother and a sister, who left home on their bikes never to return. Hays is a Vietnam vet with the nickname “Purple Hays,” a tracker during the war who finds crucial evidence like most people find misplaced TV remotes.

With a big 'ole albatross practically visible around his neck, Hays begins to relate the harrowing story of the children, Will and Julie Purcell, that continues to haunt him. You may sense shades of the real West Memphis Three case, right down to the Black Sabbath t-shirt worn by one of the teen witnesses to the children’s disappearance. But Pizzolatto is smart enough to play with our expectations. My Satanic radar was up pretty quickly, especially after creepy little faceless craft dolls are found in the crime scene.

Director Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin” and “Green Room”) from Arlington, Virginia, does a nice job with atmosphere, using a bleak, washed-out palette similar to David Fincher, with changing hairstyles and clothing as the main signifiers to which era we’re in, ‘80s, ‘90s, or current day. Fans already know that with Pizzolatto, it’s all about the accumulation of little, unnoticed details. This viewer will likely pay close attention and take note anytime the camera lingers a second too long, or perhaps a second too short – or a minor character makes a seemingly benign comment.

No spoilers here: I won’t reveal details from episodes 19, 20 and 21, because that would rob you of the joy of being an armchair detective at home. But so far this season is every bit as addictive as the first (and let's face it, some of that season was pretty silly) and the dialogue feels just as sharp. This is a lean and focused Pizzolatto, trying to save his career, and falling back on his strong point: namely the hard-nosed, manly-man crime procedural. I'm a little worried about his women characters though, who never appear to be as fully developed as the male cops. But we'll see.

Speaking of male characters, the onscreen chemistry between Ali and Dorff may not reach the bantering heights of the original roles made famous by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, now executive producers of the show – but it isn't bad. Ali’s central performance may be better than any the show has produced yet. He’s the kind of actor who can say more with his eyes than most actors can with their entire bodies, or careers.

Another noteworthy element is the way Pizzolatto touches on race issues by distilling opposing viewpoints into snippets of dialogue. It can feel forced at times, as if he were checking boxes for younger viewers, but he still nimbly manages to include the concept of white privilege while remaining true to the period for which he is writing, which is constantly shifting. Time and memory are the bedrock to this season – did I mention Hays’ mysterious wife also writes a best-selling non-fiction book about the crime? Hm.

Whether Pizzolatto will include anything supernatural like Carcosa, or rare books such as the “King in Yellow” remains to be seen, though I don't see a clear plot connection to season one yet. There is a mention of pedophile rings and "a crooked spiral" by an intrepid TV host that may prove meaningful, but I doubt it. The show may jump the shark later in the season and it wouldn't surprise me (I prefer true crime docs to fictional dramas anyway, but the expensive "True Detective" at least aims to be ambitious).

Everything about this show screams HBO franchise player, from the gorgeous opening credits set to Cassandra Wilson’s cover of Son House’s “Death Letter” to the closing outro song (in one episode) a dark folksy cover of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” We even get an outdoor teen party scene in episode one set to one of my favorite Stooges' songs, “1970.”

So far, so good. Dim the lights, popcorn Sunday nights are back on HBO.

"True Detective" airs at 9 p.m. EST on Sundays on HBO.