When the first season of HBO’s “True Detective” arrived in 2014, it was as praised and argued over as any series in television’s increasingly self-conscious New Golden/Platinum Age. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as an odder-than-usual odd couple of Louisiana policemen chasing an old case into the present, it was brilliant and maddening and new in ways that seem much less new now. In the years since, we have become accustomed to slow-building television, anthologies and the notion that an entire series might be written or directed by a single person — crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto and “Beasts of No Nation” director Cary Joji Fukunaga, respectively in this case.
A second season the following year, written almost wholly by Pizzolatto with a rotating crew of directors, was set in a fictional Southern California town and starred Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch as law enforcement officers from different departments brought together on an increasingly convoluted case involving Vince Vaughn as a crook in big trouble. It was less well-received critically — though not the bloodbath you may remember — but was not without its points of interest as it moved its sometimes tiring way to an ending partly cribbed from “Casablanca.”
Once again, the series, which returns Sunday, is mainly Pizzolatto’s work, with “Deadwood” creator David Milch co-writing one episode and Graham Gordy, another. (There will be several directors, including Pizzolatto himself.)
Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali, the series’ first black lead) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are the partnered cops here, Arkansas state police detectives. Both are Vietnam vets. Roland is more relaxed, though not exactly well-adjusted. Wayne, who developed preternatural tracking skills through his wartime specialty — “long range reconnaissance” (“Drop him in the jungle alone he comes out two or three weeks later with scalps”) — has a stricter code. He stops Roland from shooting a fox; he doesn’t want to go to a whorehouse (“guess I’m a romantic”). But bucking a tradition in crime fiction, they are generally in sync.
Like the first season, the story runs in multiple timelines. In 1980, the two are investigating the disappearance of a young brother and sister in a northwest Arkansas small town. In 1990, the case has been reopened, and they become partners again, just as Wayne’s wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), is about to publish a book — eventually considered “a classic of literary non-fiction” — on the case. (In a nice touch, Roland wears the same Western jacket in 1990 as in 1980.) In 2015, Wayne is being interviewed for a documentary on the subject, both prompting him to relive the case and challenging his ability to do it. Afflicted with an unnamed dementia, he is losing great tracts of his past, even as it seems to invade his waking present.
In either conscious callbacks to the first season or just ruts in which the writer is stuck, there are strange folk-art objects as clues, a corpse in an attitude of prayer, a hint of powerful people doing something in secret. There was a missing child in Season 1 as well. As before, the series looks good, with place and atmosphere well evoked (if somewhat less exquisitely than by original director of photography Adam Arkapaw).
It moves slowly. (There is not much action, as we usually understand it, in the five of eight episodes available for review.)
It remains a talky show, if a less self-consciously eloquent one; Wayne is a man of few words and Roland only a few more. Once again, it’s well-cast and played — Dorff, currently appearing in Fox’s “Star” and mostly relegated to thrillers and horror films this century, may get a McConaughey moment out of this. Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer, as the parents of the missing children; Michael Greyeyes as a local scavenger of trash; and Jon Tenney, as a lawyer on different sides of the case in 1980 and 1990 are some of the vivid characters who fill out the narrative. But it’s mostly Wayne’s story and Ali’s show — he is already having his moment, with big awards for “Green Book” this year and “Moonlight” two years ago.
That Wayne and Amelia are among the few people of color seen here can seem odd — we are in the South, after all — but it’s consistent with the demographics of northwestern Arkansas. Race is occasionally a point, if not exactly an issue in the five episodes I was able to watch. (“How is it here?” 1980 Wayne asks Amelia, a black woman teaching white kids. “It’s fine. It’s good really, for what it is. I hear something now and then. They’re all poor around here; that’s the main thing.”) The woman interviewing Wayne for the documentary in 2015 asks if he ever felt that his superiors discounted his leads, “because I’m interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures.” Wayne says no, but in an earlier timeline, he makes it clear to Roland, “I know where I am in a way you will never understand.”
Given the less than convincing endgames of the preceding seasons, I would not concentrate too much on the whodunit-and-why elements of the plot; the balls in the air may be more interesting than where they come down. What matters here, as before, are partnerships — between Wayne and Roland, and also between Wayne and Amelia — and what will matter most in the end is how they last or don’t.
It’s an ambitious and imperfect work, beautiful and corny, believable and less believable by turns. I recommend it, with advisories. The mere fact that it involves missing children makes it hard to watch. Though there are moments of sweetness, especially in the scenes where Wayne and Amelia get to know each other, there isn’t much in the way of humor; nothing like the weird comic edge of McConaughey and Harrelson’s philosophical double act in Season 1. (Wayne’s imitation of a lightsaber is about as light-hearted as it gets.) And when Wayne, usually contained and controlled, bursts out, it’s as shocking as anything in the show.
What’s most compelling, and touching, in “True Detective” are these elements of memory and time, how it moves on and stands still. Ali, especially, with the help of some crack makeup and hair people, is persuasive as Wayne across a span of 35 years, living in the present and in an incomplete past that is running away from him even as he runs toward it. (Perhaps because we meet him first as an old man, we are drawn immediately to his side.) When Wayne meets Amelia, in 1980, she’s teaching a Robert Penn Warren poem, “Tell Me a Story” to a high school class: “Make it a story of great distances and starlight. / The name of the story will be Time, / But you must not pronounce its name.” Later, in a waking dream, 1990 Amelia will ask 2015 Wayne, “Einstein said, ‘Past, present and future are all a stubbornly persistent illusion — and are you waking up to that illusion now that things fall apart?’ ”
The dead are only dead, but the still living have work to do.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd