Mahershala Ali saves ‘True Detective,’ doesn’t offer much else

Monday, January 21, 2019 - 5:12pm

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Ali in "True Detective"

Season One of the HBO anthology series “True Detective” is, to this day, one of the most brilliant seasons of TV I have ever watched. I admit, maybe I am clouded by nostalgia. It was a simpler time, smack dab in the middle of the “McConnaissance.” “Sharp Objects” didn’t exist yet, so there wasn’t really a competition for HBO’s top Southern Gothic mystery. Re-watching it in anticipation of Season Three strongly reaffirmed this belief. Yet, the desire to capture its singular greatness has irrevocably damaged the show ever since.

Season Three takes place again in the South, this time mostly in 1980s Arkansas. A little boy and girl have disappeared, and detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”) leads the case along with his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, “Star”). The story actually bounces around three time periods, the other two being the 1990s and the present day.

We’re given the impression that the mystery hasn’t ever been solved. However, its main detective, even when crippled by dementia in his old age, remains preoccupied with it. To their credit, the writers are able to intertwine the three timelines in a manner which enhances the mystery without detracting from our understanding of it. It avoids (at least so far) Season Two’s fatal flaw of letting storylines wrap around and simultaneously dismember each other, creating an incoherent mess which the writers could never resolve.

The goal of getting back to what made Season One so successful renders Season Three almost too similar — reaching for, but not actually being able to recreate, the original magic. Like Season One, the atmosphere is less of a standard procedural and more of “Twin Peaks.” The colors are muted and hazy, the location is rural and eerie and there’s an ever-present element of the supernatural.

Ali’s performance is the one part of Season Three that truly rises above the rest and reaches the levels of season one’s performances. He’s not given much to work with in terms of revealing dialogue or a backstory, but the way he portrays his disorientation while recounting the case in the present day is masterful. Moreover, he essentially plays three different characters in each of the three time periods. He does so in a subtle but realistic way, reflecting the life changes his character has been through along the way. In an impressively short time, he is able to create a cohesive, tragic figure the story can center itself around.

Unfortunately, none of the other characters are nearly as fleshed out. If they aren’t wooden caricatures, they are rather predictable tropes. Season One’s creativity and inventiveness, along with its cinematography (largely due to director Cary Fukunaga), is absent and does not make the Arkansas locales quite as compelling as the rural Louisiana landscapes of Season One.

Mahershala Ali’s performance is not enough to make the new season of “True Detective” seem like more than an amateurish recreation of its glory days. If you’re itching to see some intriguing anthology crime series, just stick with “American Crime Story.”