Review: New season of ‘True Detective’ is slow-moving, but Mahershala Ali is exceptional

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WHAT: "True Detective," with Season 3 premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: It’s 1980 and in the backwoods of Arkansas, a young boy and his sister go missing. This old, unsolved crime triggers memories for retired detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali). He and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), worked the case tirelessly back in the ‘80s, and then, are questioned again in 1990 when new information surfaces. By this time, Hays is a father and husband, or estranged one, married to a local schoolteacher, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo). who helped him on the case years earlier and by 1990 had written a successful book on the case.

In later age, Hays is troubled by many memories, including the fates of the kids’ parents, Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer) and her ex, Tom (Scoot McNairy). Mostly he wants closure. This is the third edition of “True Detective,” also written and created by Nic Pizzolatto. The first five (of eight) episodes were made available for review.

MY SAY: There’s a solid, potentially even groundbreaking scene in “True Detective 3” — perspectives admittedly get a little jumbled by this point — where the two 70-year-old-plus cops decide to tackle the coldest of their cold cases. There they are — a couple of good ol’ boys, Wayne and Roland, mumbling into their tumblers of whiskey about the one that got away, and wouldn’t it be fine if they could just finish what needs finishing?

Suddenly, in an instant, “True Detective the Third” promises to become something entirely different and exhilarating: A geriatric version of “Lethal Weapon,” or “48 HRS,” maybe even “Rush Hour.” At the very least, the Sunshine boys are back!

Viewers will, in fact, have to wait for the exhilaration because it occurs in the closing seconds of the fifth episode. That’s a long time to wait, except that waiting is your constant and reliable companion. You wait for plot twists, and character reveals. You wait for scenes to wrap. You wait for something to happen. Twiddling your thumbs or staring at the ceiling won’t help. “TD3” moves in its own deliberative fashion. Either the languid South is baked into its bones or Pizzolatto doesn’t have much of a story to tell. We’ll all have to (yes) wait to find out which.

In fact, “TD3” may be engineered to represent a triumph of formula over story — the original intent of this anthology franchise, in which a pair of detectives bore their way, Raymond Chandler-like, into the dark heart of an inconceivable crime, which then lays bare the fraught, depraved human condition. Because this is the South, some William Faulkner needs to be larded on too — you know, the past isn’t even the past, etc. Here. Wayne’s world is split among three separate timelines, with that unsolved crime tugging at his conscience for his own deeds as a “recon” soldier during the Vietnam War. Wayne is stalked by guilt as much as by unfinished business. Both are entangled.

That’s Pizzolatto’s big idea here, or one of them — how character and fate are uneasy companions, drifting through time, before ending up who-knows-where. Wayne’s past is also his present and future: The clarity of this hits home only in old age, just as senility and hallucinations begin to haunt him. The question, and as mentioned, the compelling one is this: Is it too late for this epiphany to do him any good?

Naturally, both formula and question rely on performance — Ali’s. He doesn’t disappoint. Among the three Waynes, there’s at least one that’s easily Emmy caliber. Ali is in almost every scene, a stunning amount of screen time, even for a lead. We see all shades of his humanity, as father, lover, husband, cop — good cop and bad cop. “TD3” largely goes as Ali goes and because his performance is so exceptional so often, a case can be made that this edition — which is better than the second — succeeds too.

Nevertheless, there are still maddening puzzles, that pace notwithstanding. For example, “TD3” is virtually colorblind, with Wayne’s race hardly a factor at all. In Ali’s Golden Globe winner, “Green Book,” he plays a jazz musician who is jailed in a sundown town — a pernicious evil of Jim Crow South and North, where blacks were jailed for being on the streets after sunset. Arkansas was packed with such towns as late as the early 1970s, but Wayne never seems to confront that part of the ugly past. This accords his character dignity, and keeps “TD3” from drifting off in to another story. But as Faulkner also wrote, race and racism are an indivisible part of the region’s history. In this series, the past isn’t always past, as it turns out. Just overlooked.

BOTTOM LINE: A thin story spread over a lot of hours, but Ali is excellent and so is his support.

 

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