‘True Detective’ restores its luster with Season 3, led by fiery Mahershala Ali

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In 1980, an investigation by Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a teacher (Carmen Ejogo) unlike any other on “True Detective.” | HBO

“Ten years is nothing. I remember everything.”

“Well. We can’t KNOW. I mean, what you don’t remember, you don’t KNOW you don’t remember.” — Mind-bending exchange during a deposition scene in Episode One of “True Detective,” Season Three.

One of the great things about “limited” TV or streaming series is the opportunity to see some of our best film actors playing the same character in six- or eight- or 10-episode arcs — sometimes even across multiple seasons.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the first season of “True Detective.”

Amy Adams in “Sharp Objects.”

Tom Hiddleston in “The Night Manager.”

Julia Roberts in “Homecoming.”

Billy Bob Thornton in “Fargo.”

And now: Mahershala Ali in “True Detective,” Season Three.

Of course, the Oscar-winning star of “Moonlight” and “Green Book” has done TV before, perhaps most notably through four seasons of “House of Cards.” But in the third chapter of Nic Pizzolatto’s buzz-generating anthology crime drama for HBO (premiering with back-to-back episodes on Jan. 13), Ali carries the time-jumping storyline with a smoldering, magnetic performance that only becomes more impressive as the layers of this complex mystery are peeled back from episode to episode — sometimes from scene to scene.

We also get outstanding work from ensemble members Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff , Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer, among others, but this is Ali’s vehicle — and judging by the five episodes I’ve seen, he delivers Emmy-worthy work in creating the first memorable TV and/or movie character of 2019.

In tone and structure, the self-contained Season Three, set in the unforgiving heart of the Ozarks, is more akin to the haunting and great and almost universally acclaimed Season One than the polarizing Season Two.

Once again we’re plunged into a time-hopping thicket filled with crimes and false leads and promising clues and violent detours and multiple suspicious characters — and righteous men who might have betrayed their better selves in the name of what they believe to be the greater good.

The year is 1980. Vietnam veteran and Arkansas state police detective Wayne Hays (Ali) is on patrol with his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) when they get a call about two siblings who have gone missing. Putting his wartime tracking skills to use, Hays soon uncovers things that make even this hardboiled tough guy recoil in horror.

The year is 1990. Former partners Hays and West have traveled in different life and career directions — but they’re reluctant partners of sorts once again when a stunning piece of evidence surfaces from the 1980 case.

The year is 2015. Wayne Hays is an old man finding it maddeningly difficult to keep a tight grasp on reality. There are increasingly wide gaps in his memories, whether he’s trying to recall what happened yesterday — or the details of a case from 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, Hays agrees to a lengthy interview with an ambitious television journalist (Sarah Gadon) who has uncovered new details about that sensational case from 35 years ago, which has remained in the spotlight in part because of a best-selling book written by Hays’ wife.

Wayne’s old partner Roland is living out his days as a loner who sits on his porch, downs beer after beer and looks after his only companions — about a dozen dogs.

What happened to these two men, who were once so sharp and so determined and so focused, and now seem so broken and lost? In true “True Detective” fashion, sometimes the more we know, the less we know.

I’m more than halfway through the story arc, and I still have more questions than answers, and how great is that? The fiery and intense performances; Pizzolatto’s dense and rich writing; the finely calibrated directing from Jeremy Saulnier; the superb editing; the chilling and mournful music from the great T. Bone Burnett; the cinematography that changes hues to reflect the various time periods — all of these elements contribute to a slightly intoxicating case of Viewer Vertigo, as we try to maintain our balance while constantly being thrown OFF balance.

I love the look of this show, particular in the sequences set in 1980, where everything is slightly tinted and faded, a la long-forgotten Polaroids trapped beneath plastic sleeves.

And the surprises. So many surprises, e.g., Ejogo’s character of Amelia, a teacher of one of the missing siblings. When we meet Amelia, it appears as if she’ll be the classic schoolteacher character — warm and caring, dedicated to her children. That is indeed the case, but oh is there more to her.

It’s pretty much that way with every character. We feel we know them, and sometimes they meet our expectations head-on — but, just as often, we’re thrown for a loop.

This is addictive television.

‘True Detective’


8 to 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO (repeated later in the week, and available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and streaming platforms) beginning Sunday.

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