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True Detective - Season 3 Premiere - Advance Preview

     I started reviewing True Detective over five years ago when the first season premiered on January 12, 2014. On a plane to Hawaii, I remember being slightly uncomfortable watching the pilot due to the graphic nature of the content and (more importantly) the glaring eyes to my left and right. Coach seating sucks any way you look at it, but it’s undeniably worse when a character's body parts start flopping around on your screen in full view of other passengers. After liberal use of the fast-forward button, I made it through the pilot and was blown away by how intriguing the series was.

     The central murder was interesting, but the main focus of the series, its characters, was the most mysterious and exciting. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) said things that were certifiably insane (“Time is a flat circle”) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) had a bizarrely self-centered moral compass (Just watch it) that somehow just worked. It was an excellent matchup that made for one of the most finely produced seasons in television history.

     Surely a second season would only be made if it could match the original season’s mastery of narrative. Sadly, while initially entertaining, season two failed to live up to the standards of the first season and wound up being mostly forgettable.

     So, after five whole years, has season three returned to the same quality of season one?

     Season three mostly conforms to the original narrative structure that was so successful in the first season by showing audiences past adventures alongside a future deposition. However, it also changes the structure by introducing a third timeline. The graphic below represents a loose representation of the way this works.

   
     Without constantly flashing a subtitle with a year on the screen, the writers make it very obvious “when” a certain storyline is taking place within the timeline of the series. Plot A’s actions in 1980 rhyme with the stories being told in 1990 and 2015. While the stories and the “real” events don’t always match up (the unreliable narrator device is used expertly in this season), you almost always know “when” events are taking place. Occasionally, a subplot of a time period (Plot C for example) can be disconnected enough from the central story to be temporarily confusing. While I note this a slight flaw, it does not take long for a concentrated viewer to sort out the question. Juggling three massively different timelines in eight episodes is a huge undertaking for such a complicated and richly detail-oriented series. Without a doubt, this season is a massive achievement in nonlinear storytelling, arguably the best example of it since the time-twisting pilot of NBC's This Is Us.

     Of course, all sections of the story are interconnected in various ways that we don’t completely understand yet. This is part of the strength of this season. As in the real world, characters change wildly from one time period to the next. Understanding the process of how these changes occurred is the best part of watching the series.

     The two main characters of the season are, at least in broad strokes, somewhat similar to Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Though he is certainly more personable than his season one counterpart, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) mirrors Rust Cohle’s character in that (for awhile) he’s a bit of a loner and his coworkers view him as such. Hays’s partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), serves as the obviously flawed, but better-liked foil in just the same way that Marty Hart did for Rust Cohle in season one. The partner’s relationship here is also somewhat tense, but you won’t see that until a few episodes down the line.

     Of course, it wouldn't be True Detective if our main leads didn't have a multitude of personal issues that constantly intersect with the themes (and the people) involved with the crime. This feature is excellently utilized as the characters change over the course of a whole 35 years. Additionally, the best parts of the premiere involve the various other characters that flavor the different timelines so well. Scott McNairy and Mamie Gummer do marvelous jobs as Tom & Lucy Purcell, the desperate parents of the children at the center of this season’s case. Similarly, in 2015, Henry Hays (Ray Fisher) struggles to help his father, Wayne, combat memory issues that slowly begin to appear worse than either of them actually realize. While the first season’s victims were simple mechanisms to learn more about Rust and Marty, this season truly fleshes out the victims of this season’s crime. Expect to spend a significant amount of time with those directly (and indirectly) affected by the crime at the center of this story.

     By the end of the premiere, all three timelines manage to pull you into three closely related stories that are endlessly interesting. The beginnings of this case in 1980, the developments in 1990 and our characters’ deeply flawed reflections on those events in 2015 are all vital to the show’s overall story arc and you don’t fee like a single second of screen time has been wasted.

Rating: 9.7/10 - Deeply interesting characters, darkly mysterious crimes, and an expertly-crafted nonlinear narrative all combine to make a fascinating new story.

Tune in to the third season premiere of True Detective on Sunday, January 13 @ 9 pm on HBO. Be sure to come back here to SpoilerTV to let everyone else know what you thought of the episodes.

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