DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Five years ago, HBO grabbed the country's attention with a new anthology drama series called "True Detective." The show suffered under the weight of its own hype and turned out a disappointing second season. Now it's back, starring Mahershala Ali, who recently won a Golden Globe for his supporting role in the film "Green Book." Culture Critic Soraya Nadia McDonald says the third season of "True Detective" is a welcome return to its introspective roots.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD, BYLINE: When "True Detective" debuted, it became an internet sensation because of all the ways its creator, Nic Pizzolatto, upended the buddy cop genre. There were its movie star leads, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, crossing over into premium cable. Its meandering plot steeped viewers in a moody Southern Gothic setting. Its director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, dragged cinematic conventions into television with an unforgettable tracking shot. And Pizzolatto loaded his scripts with philosophical aphorisms inspired by the Robert Chambers collection "The King In Yellow."
Now back for a third season, Pizzolatto has regained his footing and the magic in his pen. This time, he defies expectations by turning a cop drama into a meditation on social isolation. He details the way adult biases and self-interests fail the most vulnerable members of a society - its children. Mahershala Ali is remarkable as the embittered, antisocial Wayne Hays, a Vietnam vet who craves little more than the company of liquor and an empty VFW hall. He and his partner Roland West, played by Stephen Dorff, are detectives with the Arkansas State Police.
A white high school student, Will Purcell, and his older sister, Julie, have disappeared in 1980 from their tiny, mostly white, mostly poor town of West Finger, Ark. Director Jeremy Saulnier's timeline jumps from 1980 to 1990, when the case is reopened, to 2015, when a journalist interviews Hays about his work. Hays meanwhile is struggling to sort out what happened before the fog of Alzheimer's permanently clouds his brain. Depicting haze, especially as an elderly man waited with regrets, is an exercise in restraint. Ali pulls it off with aplomb.
Black residents don't trust Hays because he wears a police badge. At the precinct, his instincts carry less weight than his white partners. Hays knows his race limits his professional progress. It fuels the way he pulls away from people, which in turn worsens his prospects for advancement. Pizzolatto understands that the racial dynamics of West Finger don't just create divisions. They force people together too. Hays marries the only other middle-class black person in town, Will Purcell's high school English teacher Amelia Reardon, played with deceptive ease by Carmen Ejogo. They expertly recreate the instant rapport that forms between black people who've never met, casually chatting about everyday racism like they're discussing the weather. You know they're talking about white people even if they never say white people.
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MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Wayne Hays) How long you been teaching?
CARMEN EJOGO: (As Amelia Reardon) About six years.
ALI: (As Wayne Hays) All at Westman (ph)?
EJOGO: (As Amelia Reardon) Yes, sir.
ALI: (As Wayne Hays) Hey, if you say sir, I start looking for my boss.
EJOGO: (As Amelia Reardon) No, I'm sorry - just, you know, police.
ALI: (As Wayne Hays) How is it here, you know?
EJOGO: (As Amelia Reardon) It's fine. Its good really for what it is. I hear something now and then. They're all poor around here. That's the main thing.
ALI: (As Wayne Hays) What you hear now and then?
EJOGO: (As Amelia Reardon) You know, a word in the hallway or something. They're careful around me.
MCDONALD: The kinship between Amelia and Hays could be deeper. But Hays remains distant. Amelia takes an interest in the Purcell case, and her amateur sleuthing turns up valuable clues. But Hays, too consumed with his own frustrations, can't appreciate his wife's efforts nor her skill. This perhaps is the biggest improvement of the whole series. Amelia is nothing like the feebly drawn female characters of the first season. She has real purpose. The first two episodes move like molasses on a cold morning, but it soon becomes clear that everyone in West Finger, including Hays, his wife, his partner and the parents of the missing Purcell children is starved for connection.
Nevertheless, they keep erecting walls to divide themselves from each other. In doing so, they repeatedly obstruct the best chances they have to find out what happened to Will and Julie. The production design reinforces West Finger's grimness. The town is full of rusted-out cars and ramshackle houses and everything exists in a palette of dull browns and miserable grays. I've seen five of this season's eight episodes, and the most compelling mystery of "True Detective" is understanding why Hays has withdrawn from the world around him. It's also about how that withdrawal is a response to larger societal forces, including but not limited to racism. At this point, I'm wondering, can a man who spent decades most comfortable inside his own head forge enough connections in time to solve the case that's haunted him? Or will Alzheimer's doom him and the Purcell children forever?
BIANCULLI: Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. "True Detective" returns to HBO this Sunday. On Monday's FRESH AIR, notes from a transplant surgeon. Dr. Joshua Mezrich talks about the thrill of implanting a new organ and changing a patient's life and about some operations that didn't go so well. His new book is part memoir and part history of organ transplantation. It's called "When Death Becomes Life." Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE MOUTOUZKINE'S "NINA CON VIOLIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.