True Detective Season 3’s release date is drawing ever closer–the series returns to HBO for its Season 3 premiere on January 13. For True Detective fans, that comes with some trepidation, as the general consensus is that the show’s second season in 2015 did not live up to the high bar set by Season 1. But there’s some hope: True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto said during a recent press conference that he didn’t shy away from the backlash against Season 2.
“I understood that there was a lot of stuff in Season 2 that people hadn’t really wanted to see, based on Season 1 of True Detective, but I’m very proud of the work everybody did,” he told a room of journalists. “I just try to keep getting better at what I do, and move forward, and I think substantive criticism is a big part of that, so I try not to shut myself off from any of it, and really just try to get better.”
He added that for True Detective Season 3, he wanted to “narrow the focus” of what they’re trying to do, and he emphasized that creating the show is “a big team effort.”
True Detective Season 3 focuses on Wayne Hays, a detective played by Mahershala Ali, and a single investigation that spans three separate time periods: 1980, 1990, and 2015. Hays remains the focus in all three settings, which made for unique challenges in every aspect of this season’s creation, from the writing to Ali’s multi-faceted performance of the same character at three very different points in his life.
Pizzolatto said he started with the character, Wayne Hays, “and the desire to tell a man’s life story in the form of a detective story.” In the most recent setting, Hays is beginning to suffer from dementia, and he struggles to recall aspects of the case. “If he’s losing his life story near the end of his life, then who he is becomes a mystery to himself, in a way,” Pizzolatto said.
With those ideas and themes in place, Pizzolatto began to conceive of the case itself, in which two children go missing in the Arkansas Ozarks. “I wanted a case that it was possible could be revisited over these three separate timelines, so there would have to be an element that was unresolved in each of those timelines,” he said. “And I also wanted something that was–even though there is that murder, something that was less sensationalistically violent and perhaps more closely tied to the idea of family, because so much of the case would ultimately impact this character’s family and haunt the family in its own way…It kind of haunted me the more I thought about it.”
Comparisons with True Detective’s beloved Season 1 will be inevitable, but Pizzolatto said Season 3 is vastly different–both structurally and thematically–from the original eight episodes, which aired all the way back in 2014.
“It’s a much, much more complicated structural thing we all tried to do this year than existed in Season 1,” he said. “I feel like this one has a lot more light in it than previous seasons, and maybe reaches for hope a bit more. I’m not even sure this is properly ‘noir,’ given where it goes.”
Ali, who was also present during the press conference, added that he thinks the anthology show’s treatment of its settings provides a through line between seasons. “Your setting is always a character in the story in a very real way,” the actor said, turning to address Pizzolatto. “Even looking for the children, as the mystery unfolds, we were really with a camera crew hiking 30 minutes to start work, with gear, and finding our location, and then beginning our day’s shooting. So to really be in that space, I really can’t put words to it, but I will say that I’m confident that it feeds you with something, as an actor, to be in the environment of the real mountains or the caves in which this mystery started.”
Season 3’s structure seems inherently at odds with its genre, as a mystery is generally dependant on withholding some information from viewers until it’s time to make the reveals. With Hays revisiting the case in later time periods, how can the events of earlier ones remains mysterious? How do you keep viewers engaged when huge chunks of the show are set decades after the initial case?
True Detective – Season 3 Official Trailer
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“It was the most challenging thing I’d ever tried to do,” Pizzolatto admitted. “When I originally had this idea, I was like, ‘Yeah, but how would you even do that?’ It’s like some impossible math problem, how you keep a mystery going and have these reversals and revelations without cheating the audience and going, ‘Well, I could have shown you this, but I just didn’t show you.'”
He said one of his goals this season was to have “no tricks up his sleeve”–in other words, not to mislead viewers simply to keep the mystery going. “Because 2015 and 1990 are happening at the same time as 1980, you’re sort of constantly being told what is going to happen,” he said. “It’s telling you everything that’s going to happen before it happens. I wanted to be able to do that–to not play any cheap games with the viewer, to respect their attention and their time, but still reward them with revelation and reversal.”
With that goal in mind, it seems possible that True Detective Season 3 will swing too far in the other direction. But Pizzolatto said he’d love if viewers restarted Season 3 from the beginning after watching the finale, to pick up on things they missed the first time around.
“I’d love it if they did that, but I don’t know,” he said, clearly humbled: “I mean, they might get to the end and be like, ‘I never want to watch this again.'”
Let’s hope, when True Detective Season 3 premieres on HBO on January 13, that isn’t the case.