Why 'True Detective' Season 3 Brings the Franchise Back to Its Former Glory

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The new season of True Detective is just hours away -- and it's good. 

HBO's anthology crime series debuted to critical acclaim in 2014, with compelling performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson leading audiences through a winding, dynamic case. The show's highly-anticipated second season aired the following year with a new cast and a new case, but it didn't live up to expectations. Stars Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch delivered solid performances, but it seemed to be the story that was lacking.

If there's anything creator Nic Pizzolatto could have learned from the disappointment of the response to season two, however, it's that viewers crave complexity. They crave mystery, they crave emotional resonance and they crave a challenge. Season three of True Detective delivers all of that, and more. 

Led by Mahershala Ali -- who lobbied for the lead role (more on that later) -- True Detective's newest season takes us back to the south, and back to what worked for the series, as the show focuses on a case of two missing kids in Arkansas in the 1980s. Here's why season three of True Detective brings the franchise back to its former glory. 

Flashbacks on Flashbacks

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Jumping between the future and the past was part of what made season one of True Detective so alluring. Whose version of history were we seeing? Who, in present day, can we trust? Season three takes us back to this complexity with three different timelines, showing Ali's Detective Wayne Hays first working the case with his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff) in the '80s, then 10 years later, and finally in 2015. 

Included in this season's flashbacks, however, are roots to real-life events. The Vietnam War and its effect on returning soldiers becomes delicately weaved throughout the story, as do several other circumstances, which slightly transitions True Detective into a space of increased relatability to the viewer. The case stays with you -- just like it does for Hays. 

Mahershala Being Mahershala 

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God, this guy can act. And he knows it. Initially offered the secondary role, it was Ali who positioned himself as this season's lead, after convincing Pizzolatto that he could do it. This season's lead detective was meant to be white, but Ali's gumption -- with a little help from his grandfather, a state police officer in the '60s and '70s -- got him the gig. 

"In my mind, I was like, ‘I’ve done this my entire career though. I’ve never done that,'” Ali recalled during a conversation with John David Washington on Variety's Actors on Actors series. “At that time [I was offered the part, I was] 43 years old. If it don’t happen now, it really may not happen.”

Ali, fresh off his Oscar win for Moonlight, showed Pizzolatto photos of his grandfather in uniform, and told him that the story would be "improved" if the lead was black. It worked. 

"It opened up new dimensions in the character," Pizzolatto told EW, admitting he initially thought changing the race of the character might hinder other aspects of the story. "Suddenly that existential isolation that’s endemic to the character of The Detective in popular culture really came out to the forefront when you can see what an outsider he is in this world, and how that would allow him a quality of observation that others would lack who are more comfortable, and how controlled he would have to be in his responses and interactions with the public and his superiors."

A Standout Cast Beside Him 

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It's Ali whose character we track through three different time periods, but it's his castmembers at every stage of the game who make each time period feel realistic. Dorff's performance as Ali's partner is perfect in every way, offering the emotion, humor and levity that Ali's character sometimes lacks. Scoot McNairy's portrayal of the children's father is incredibly layered, as is Mamie Gummer's performance of their mother, constantly toying with how the audience should feel about her. Do we pity her? Do we sympathize with her? We hope we spend the rest of the season trying to figure it out. 

We definitely know how to feel about Carmen Ejogo's Amelia, however. The Girlfriend Experience star's performance is equally comforting as it is daring. She's instantly lovable but never boring, and always mesmerizing to watch.

"Everyone’s coming in with the same level of enthusiasm that I think the audience has who is already out there. I’m personally excited to explore what that world [the Ozarks] was like in the time period that we’ll be exploring," Ejogo told ET in December 2017. "It’s always such a privilege as an actor when you get to encounter an entirely new environment, and you have to explore and research it to be able to inhabit it and to be able to convey it. That appealed to me, trying to find a way to authentically convey a moment in time that has passed all of us and probably doesn’t exist there now."

And a Great Case 

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It's called True Detective for a reason. As we learned with season two, the case can make or break the season -- and this time around, we've got a good one. What seems like a possible kidnapping or case of a couple of runaways quickly turns into a complicated investigation, which Pizzolatto isn't even sure will be solvable by the finale (not that we're complaining). 

"I don’t know," he candidly told EW. "I think you could have an idea of what happened before those events are dramatized. But the full solution to everything that happened … maybe somebody could. I don’t think I could, but I’m not that smart."

Pizzolatto seemingly put everything he had into bringing True Detective back to acclaimed, entertaining, thought-provoking series it once was -- and so did everyone else on the project. 

"It was a grueling shoot, and I mean it in the most positive [way]," Ali told ET earlier this month, noting that the cast and crew's "work and commitment" would show onscreen. 

"It was a difficult shoot, but I think we really kind of stuck together and I think we did something special. I really do," he insisted. "And I'm so proud to be a part of that story, and to have had that opportunity, so I'm really looking forward to people seeing that." 

So, here's to feeling just like Detective Hays does in 2015 -- emotionally and intellectually exhausted by a case that occurred decades earlier, but still unable to let it go. True Detective is back, and it's exceptional and arduous in the most satisfyingly insatiable way yet.  

True Detective premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. 

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