In <i>True Detective, </i>Mahershala Ali Plays the Moody Brooder to Perfection ( )

The third season of HBO’s True Detective is a return to the first season’s template. This is a response to the errant season two, a much-derided foray into urban policing, corruption, and masculinity. Season two was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a terrible piece of television. But the show’s debut season was simply so good that its sequel was doomed to struggle. In that first eight-part series we watched the classic cop two-hander transform into Bayou-sodden philosophy. The “straight man” was Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart, a philandering father who is undone by his lack of self-awareness. The “maverick” was Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle, a man with forearms hewn from oak, a tragic past, and a mind made out of razor blades.

The central conceit of season one was its double-layered narrative. Along one timeline, in 1995, Rust and Marty hunt a rather baroque serial killer. Along the other timeline, over in 2012, two younger cops question our heroes about how Timeline One went down. They suspect that Rust, who by now has taken to mustache-growing and expressing himself in gnomic expressions (“Time is a flat circle”) might himself be the killer. They never got the guy after all—was he under their noses all along?

The two timelines merge into a denouement complete with acid flashbacks, revelations about the meaning of life, and multiple stab-wounds. It was a highly conceptual show, mostly in its focus on philosophical pessimism, but Rust’s sexiness and his love of cocaine and pull-ups (at the same time) kept it entertaining. The final effect was of a gratifying meditation on time and relationships, where narrative form reflected the philosophy espoused by its characters.

True Detective has