True Detective season 3 is nearing its endgame, and it can safely be said that it’s much better than season 2. The new run of episodes on HBO has helped restore faith in the series - faith that was seriously damaged by its own sophomore outing.
Once again coming from writer Nic Pizzolatto (who also directed a couple of episodes in season 3), the latest True Detective crime story is led by a captivating star turn from Mahershala Ali. The actor is in the running to to pick up his second Oscar win this year, for his role in Green Book, but his work on True Detective is even more powerful.
While Ali is great, he can't carry a show all by himself, and there are a number of factors in the resurgence of True Detective - from the supporting performances to the story. But above all, the show's third season has dealt with the macro problems that plagued season 2. Here's how Pizzolatto and co. have set about getting things back on track.
- This Page: True Detective Seasons 1 and 2
- Page 2: Why True Detective Season 3 Works
Why True Detective Season 1 Worked
True Detective burst onto screens back in 2014 to universal acclaim. A buzzy hit that sent the internet into a frenzy, it seemed like an overnight sensation, but creator Nic Pizzolatto had actually been developing the idea for years.
Pizzolatto started out as a short story writer and novelist, and True Detective was initially conceived as a novel. Around 2010, however, the writer started trying to break into TV, and one of his first screenplays was an early, rough version of True Detective, which he felt was better suited to television. In April 2012, HBO ordered the series. By that point, he’d already been developing the idea for at least two years, but most likely more. He then had another nine months before filming started.
What all that means is that Pizzolatto had had the idea percolating in his mind for an age, and was able to refine it and perfect it before the cameras started rolling. Then he was able to draft in Cary Joji Fukunaga to work alongside him. Their partnership, and Fukunaga’s gift for stunning shots and visual storytelling, elevated True Detective to a new level, marking it as one of the best shows of the Golden Age. That’s true of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s performances too, but it all stems from Pizzolatto having the time to meticulously craft his story, characters, and world.
Why True Detective Season 2 Failed
As can often be the case, success was a double-edged sword for True Detective. The show got good ratings and won a slew of awards, which naturally led to a renewal - but there was a problem. Pizzolatto had spent years developing one idea, and now he had to come up with a new one from scratch and with added time pressure. Obviously, HBO wanted to capitalize as much as possible on the hype around True Detective. This was a show that caused an old book to shoot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, sent Reddit into a frenzy week-after-week, and won 5 Emmy Awards. TV schedules are now slightly more flexible - thanks, in part, to other HBO giants like Westworld and Game of Thrones setting a trend for longer waits between seasons- but back then True Detective was expected to return the next year.
So, Pizzolatto had to set about writing a new story in a fraction of the time he’d had for the first. Filming would need to begin in November 2014, meaning he had less than a year to write most of it, and that rush was evident in the final product. Season 2’s storyline became an overly convoluted mess, where no one knew what was going on not because it was a good mystery, but because it was utterly incoherent.
There were other issues too. The cold hard concrete of Vinci, a Los Angeles stand-in, did nothing to stand out. Fukunaga didn’t return, because of a mix of scheduling conflicts and creative differences, and it missed his vision, which could cover for some of Pizzolatto’s shortcomings. The cast was mostly fine, but the characters were the hard-boiled archetypes we’d seen a million times before. Rust Cohle shone because he was so unique, but he was unique because Pizzolatto was able to spend so long developing him, refining him, and giving him a voice. McConaughey had detailed blueprints to work with, whereas Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams et al had an etch-a-sketch. That’s partly Pizzolatto’s fault. But it’s also HBO’s.