True Detective lives. After two hotly debated seasons followed by an extended period of uncertainty, the crime anthology returns to HBO on Jan. 13 for the first time since 2015. During the hiatus, the network recruited some marquee talent to rehabilitate the shaky franchise. Now the show stars Mahershala Ali, who has won awards for his supporting turns in Moonlight and Green Book, in the psychologically rich lead role he deserves. HBO enlisted low-budget thriller master Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Blue Ruin) to direct. And they brought in Deadwood auteur David Milch to assist the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, a first-time showrunner with a bad habit of sounding contentious in interviews.
Those efforts pay off in a solid third season whose structure and style hew close to those of the first. The show is set in a grim Ozark town, populated by white characters who speak a common language of coded racism. Episodes linger on exchanges between Ali’s earnest Detective Wayne Hayes and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Across three timelines spanning 35 years, Hayes grapples with the case of two missing children.
In that sense, it’s a welcome return to form: before crashing and burning in the California neo-noir of its second season, which for a long time seemed as though it would be the show’s last, True Detective was a smash hit, thanks to the instantly iconic buddy-cop duo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, reams of quotable dialogue and awe-inspiring visual acrobatics courtesy of director Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Yet it’s also worth remembering that even that story arc had ultimately failed to satisfy its most vocal viewers. Instead of tying up eight episodes of cryptic clues with a bow, Pizzolatto let loose ends dangle, supplying a quick resolution to his baroque whodunit before concluding on a more philosophical note.
There were viewers–myself included–who liked that the show’s conclusion was open-ended. McConaughey’s breakout character, the alcoholic pseudo-sage Rust Cohle, had been a nihilist, talking in opaque aphorisms like “Time is a flat circle.” The finale exposed Rust’s worldview as reductive, and made a case for why a person in so much pain should keep fighting the forces of darkness in a universe where the war between good and evil will remain forever unresolved.
Yet a larger cohort–or at least a more outspoken one–were furious at Pizzolatto for pulling what they saw as a bait and switch. After all, they had spent weeks rewatching episodes, consulting recaps, sleuthing out literary references and comparing notes on the Internet with other obsessives desperate to solve the Southern Gothic mystery based on what they presumed to be a surplus of evidence. By the middle of the season, TV bloggers and a True Detective message board on the mega-discussion forum Reddit had become fully symbiotic, churning out and chewing on each other’s 5,000-word theories as if the show were a massive multiplayer online game. For these viewers, True Detective failed not because of any particular story flaw but because in its final moments, it claimed the right to be an ambiguous work of art–instead of an interactive challenge that fans could win or lose by solving the mystery.