‘True Detective’: A Streaming Whodunit Series

Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto reinvents the anthology crime drama.
‘True Detective’: A Streaming Whodunit Series
Mike Ardoin (Corbin Pitts) and Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), in “True Detective.” (HBO) 
Michael Clark

Starting in the 1950s, the “Anthology” concept never really caught on with TV audiences, which had already become conditioned to the now-accepted episodic format where the same performers play the same characters each season until the premise and level of interest runs its course.

Right out of the gate, anthologies faced the challenge of not only changing performers and characters every season, but also themes and entire concepts often within the same episode. It was a programming challenge most audiences (meaning 50 percent +1) weren’t willing to sustain.

But, with the advent of premium cable in the late 20th century, the anthology format became more viable.

Nic Pizzolatto, writer and executive producer of "True Detective."<span style="color: #ff0000;"> </span>
Nic Pizzolatto, writer and executive producer of "True Detective." 
Among the few standouts of the modern anthology format are “Fargo” and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s “True Detective.” The series has just finished its fourth season, and for those who relish whodunit mystery crime thrillers that offer no easy answers, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more challenging and rewarding.

Season 1 (2014)

TV poster for Season 1 of "True Detective." (HBO)<span style="color: #ff0000;"> </span>
TV poster for Season 1 of "True Detective." (HBO) 

For most fans of the series, Season 1 is by far the standout, perhaps not so much for quality and originality (both of which are top-shelf), but because it was unlike anything TV audiences had ever seen before.

Set in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, it features Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as state detectives summoned to the scene of what looks to be a ritual-style murder. An odd swirl pattern has been painted on the victim’s back, and there is a miniature teepee-shaped dream catcher left near the body.

For the rest of the series, the narrative progresses from 1995 to 2012, then reverts to 2002 and 2005 with Hart, Cohle, and Hart’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) supplying bits and pieces of the bigger picture, something that doesn’t become fully clear until the last 30 minutes of the final episode.

All of the episodes were written by Mr. Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation,” “No Time to Die”), something not usually found in modern-day episodic TV.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Season 2 (2015)

TV poster of Season 2 of "True Detective."
TV poster of Season 2 of "True Detective."

Many critics and audiences immediately dismissed “Season 2” out of hand, citing not only quality issues, but structural choices as well; something with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

First, it had the misfortune to follow not only the finest season of the series, but one of the best seasons in the history of the medium. Had it been the first installment of “True Detective,” I believe the reaction would have been far more positive.

Presented in a traditional linear format, the story centers around the suspicious death of a corrupt California politician, who has close financial ties with crime kingpin Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), and possibly Semyon’s wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly).

Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch co-star as frequently bickering detectives from three different state jurisdictions. They join forces to connect Semyon (and several other assorted tainted officials) to the murder.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Season 3 (2019)

TV poster for Season 3 of "True Detective."
TV poster for Season 3 of "True Detective."

Returning back to the original non-linear format of the first season, “Season 3” is again set in the Deep South (Arkansas), and features two investigators with diametrically opposed personalities and working styles.

In 1980, detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) respond to a call placed by Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), the father of two missing grade school children. The outcome of one child is determined in the first episode.

In the same installment set in 1990, the second child’s fate has still not been resolved, although new leads offer promise. In 2015, a now mentally diminished Hays morns his deceased schoolteacher-turned-writer ex-wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo).

While they sometimes differ in personality, Hays and West greatly respect and like each other, unlike Hart and Cohle from Season 1. The winner of two Academy Awards (“Moonlight” and “Green Book”), Mr. Ali is nothing less than stunning in his portrayal of the multifaceted Hays over 35 years, and his performance in the final episode is among the most impressive in TV history.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 

Season 4: “Night Country” (2024)

TV Poster for Season 4 of "True Detective."
TV Poster for Season 4 of "True Detective."

The only season with a subtitle, “Night Country” is easily the weakest entry in the series, not so much due to quality issues, which are mixed, but rather, because it strays the furthest from the series’s original format, spirit, and execution.

It’s also the only season without any writing or directing credits for Mr. Pizzolatto, who remains an executive producer. In his stead as showrunner is Mexican director and co-writer Issa Lopez who, with a resume top-heavy in Spanish language romantic comedies, is operating way out of her depth.

The title acknowledges the setting: the time of year in parts of Alaska where there is no daylight for months at a time.

As police chief Liz Danvers, Jodie Foster co-stars opposite former professional boxer Kali Reis, who plays trooper Evangeline Navarro. While investigating the disappearance of eight men from a research facility and a seemingly unrelated case involving a female, the two women immediately clash. For the duration of the season, they get along like two feral cats in a knotted sack.

After a six-year period of no leads, the men’s bodies are found frozen, and the investigation begins in earnest with Danvers and Reis again perpetually at each other’s throats.

Episodes two through five provide countless dead ends, red herrings, nods to Season 1, and repetitive character exposition which, instead of propelling the narrative, delays the final reveal, which makes up somewhat for all that preceded it.

On February 22, HBO renewed the critically acclaimed original drama series for a fifth season.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
All four seasons of the show can currently be streamed on HBO Max.
‘True Detective’ Directors: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Nic Pizzolatto, Justin Lin, Daniel Sackheim, Issa Lopez  Stars: Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Vince Vaughn, Mahershala Ali, Jodie Foster Running Time: 30 episodes, 50-60 minutes per episode MPAA Rating: TV-MA Release Date: Jan. 12, 2014 Series Rating: 4 stars out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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