what season 3 of true detective needs to get right to be as good as season 1 main Matthew McConaughey Woody Harrelson

Since the release of the season 3 trailer for True Detective, there is a renewed interest in HBO’s crime anthology which first burst onto the scene in 2014 — earning Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (for both Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series — before seeing fan enthusiasm dwindle during a muddled second season which failed to build upon the momentum.

Early responses suggest a return to form for the Nic Pizzolatto-created series. Although it’s only a short trailer, the visuals, plotting, setting, and characters seem to suggest that the sophomore slump was the exception and not the rule for True Detective.

Here’s what we’re hoping for when season 3 of True Detective premieres in January.

Oscar caliber acting

Whereas it used to be a step down for Oscar-worthy talent to enter the TV world, that taboo has long since been busted by countless actors and actresses recently like Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins, Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts.

While Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson certainly didn’t establish the precedent, their work on the first season of True Detective indicated that the television medium afforded actors the ability to turn in award-winning performances that stretched out over 10 hours rather than the traditional two hour running time of a film.

Although season 2 boasted a number of big name actors — Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch — the cast lacked that “oomph” that McConaughey and Harrelson achieved as Bayou-based partners.

Enter, Mahershala Ali, the unquestioned star of the upcoming third season who built his name on House of Cards, took a villainous turn on Luke Cage, and won an Oscar for Moonlight.

It stands to reason then that Ali had his pick of projects after taking home Best Supporting Actor in 2016. The fact that he signed on for the third season of a TV show suggests that the material is really, really good.

Playing Wayne Hays, a state police detective from Northwest Arkansas — in three different time periods — the first trailer gives up similar vibes as the demons that affected McConaughey’s, Rust Cohle, and Harrelson’s, Marty Hart, after investigating the murder of Dora Lange.

Combine that with the fact that season two was admittedly rushed into production, and season 3 is three years in the making, and it seems to be a recipe for success.

A rural backdrop

The second season of True Detective was set near Los Angeles in the fictional industrial town of Vinci, California, which was based upon the shady dealings in Vernon, California which is located a few miles south of Downtown. More often than not, scenes were bookended by overhead shots of the various highways that dissect the city.

This was a distinct departure from the Bayou-set first season. Sure, it was a different story which needed a different type of locale. However, the show seemed to suffer from the decision.

True Detective was best in a rural backdrop. It should come as no surprise then that season 3 is heading to the Ozarks. Whether a show of the same name on Netflix, or the recently completed Sharp Objects on HBO which was set in the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri, these shows excel in extracting everything they can out of mysteries set in towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

More often than not, people are products of their environment. Thus, in TV, where a show is set is of vital importance. Consider for a moment that Breaking Bad was supposed to be shot/set in Riverside, CA instead of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Creator, Vince Gilligan, said of the change, “It felt like virgin territory for cinematography.”

In a big city, crimes are forgotten as quickly as they happen. For detectives, they don’t have the ability or bandwidth to get stuck on a case for decades. But when something big happens in a place full of nothing and nobodies, that’s what breeds good drama.

Time jumps

True Detective creator, Nic Pizzolatto, artfully handled events of the past and present in the first season. It’s clear from the first trailer for season 3 that Mahershala Ali’s character will be explored during at least three different points in his life/career.

While you could certainly make the case that shows like Westworld use this device too much, the crime drama nature of True Detective makes the timeline diversions much easier to digest.

Crazy fan theories

Today’s television viewer wants to predict what is going to happen only to be pleasantly gobsmacked when they are completely wrong. It isn’t so much that we think we’re smarter than the show’s creator, it’s just we thirst to dissect every bit of a TV show that is uber confident it its execution.

Season 1 gave us burning questions like, “who is the Yellow King?” “What does ‘time is a flat circle” mean?” “What’s the deal with ‘The Five Horsemen?” and countless other inquiries. We invested in what was happening and looked deeper even if we weren’t supposed to. In season 2, we attempted to find greater meaning in material that didn’t warrant it.

Meaningful monologues

The combination of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s  delivery made the dialogue smack like a bullwhip in season 1. Although it was dense, poetic, and often laden in mythology that only Rust Cohle and Marty Hart’s characters understood, it somehow fed both expositional character motivations and the murder plot about the Yellow King and Carcosa.

Pizzolatto attempted similar elements in season 2. Most notably, there was Vince Vaughn’s monologue while laying in bed that detailed a harrowing situation when his father locked him in the basement for days on end. When he finally emerged, he had killed a rat. It was an attempt at mixing Pizzzolatto’s esoteric yarns with a resounding ending a la Quentin Tarantino in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds. It just didn’t quite work.

In contrast, consider something commonly referred to as, “Marty’s ass cancer soliloquy.” It reinforces the thematic premise that both he and Rust are ticking time bombs who have let the important parts of their lives slip away. It didn’t feel like Pizzolatto was trying to impress us with flowery prose; rather, it was an anecdote that played a larger role in establishing the overall tone of the series.

The look of Kodak film

The look and feel of True Detective was established by director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, whose muddy visual style worked nicely alongside the intricate storytelling of creator, Nic Pizzolatto.

“Before I even started working on True Detective, I made a point of telling Nic … that one of my priorities as director was to defend craft despite the constraints on my time and budget,” Fukunaga said. “In every episode I wanted to at least try to find specific moments in which you could treat the visual side of the medium with the same importance as we were treating the dialogue.”

In addition to a notable six-minute tracking shot that dazzled audiences, Fukunaga and Arkapaw established the aforementioned palette by using 35mm film — Kodak Vision 3 50D and 500T — and Panavision Ultra Speed prime lenses which Arkapaw said gave the older scenes a dated quality.

While the usage of film used to be the rule, and not the exception, it is becoming more and more common for both film and TV shows to be executed solely in digital formats.

In addition to True Detective, another hallmark show known for its cinematography, Breaking Bad, also used Kodak film.

Breaking Bad cinematographer, Michael Slovis, has said of Kodak, “The film stocks are better than ever, at the top of their game. Kodak has done an extraordinary job. (I’m not that familiar with Fujifilm.) When I first got this job, the first season was shot with Fujifilm, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but the orange and yellows and browns of the desert screamed Kodak to me as well as the blacks. I wanted the Kodak blacks because I knew it was a show about darkness.”

One could make the argument that the visuals on True Detective are characters themselves. If they pass the eye test, we as the audience have no choice but to believe.

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.