'True Detective' Season 3 Review: Mahershala Ali Drives Slow-Burn Mystery to Great Heights

True Detective's first season served as proof positive that television is in the midst of its golden era. Five years and a panned second season later, the HBO mystery is back with a third installment that serves as a roaring reminder of just how compelling television can be.

Despite some hunger for Season 1 stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to return, the series sticks to its anthology format with a new cast and a whole new mystery to unravel.

Mahershala Ali stars as central character Detective Wayne Hays, while Stephen Dorff stars as his partner Roland West in what is his most high-profile role in many years. The pair is given a simple setup with urgent stakes: two young siblings left home on their bikes to go play with a friend, but they never arrived at the friends' residence or returned home.

They soon meet the panicked father Tom Parcel (Scoot McNairy), who is distraught and desperate to find them, and the volatile mother Lucy (Mamie Gummer), who was nowhere to be found when the children disappeared. Wayne and Roland work quickly to question suspicious locals, teenagers obsessed with a satanic-themed rock band and a local teacher (Carmen Ejogo) to rescue the children as quickly as possible. By the end of Episode 1, this simple premise is cast in a totally different light, leading to a complex mystery poised to unfold over decades.

The detectives are given their task in late 1980, but are forced to revisit it in 1990 and 2015. This causes the mystery to roll out in different time periods, with the actors portraying their characters throughout their lives each episode.

Wayne's life provides the toughest for an actor to adapt, but Ali rises to the occasion, as usual. Wayne is a resourceful and reserved investigator in 1980 as he grapples with the struggles of being a black detective in a Southern town and being a Vietnam veteran. By '90, he is a family man who needs to find new meaning to his life and keep his family intact.

The modern timeline sees the Moonlight and Green Book actor stretch his talents to play an elderly version of Wayne with heavy makeup. The aged detective is battling dementia (complete with sudden memory loss and hallucinations) and desperately clinging to memories of his life. Ali is able to handle all facets of Wayne's complex story, adding a remarkable character study to this slow burn whodunnit.

Elsewhere, Dorff is a crowdpleasing, say-it-like-it-is cop who livens up situations when Ali's character has to keep his composure. It's one of the meatiest roles of his career, and he does not leave anything left on the bone. Coming off a similar role in the Oscar contender Destroyer, McNairy continues his streak of compelling character performances. Ejogo also brings loads of charm to the screen that makes her cunning and warm character a fan-favorite.

While these performances are outstanding, they would be useless without strong material to grasp onto. Luckily, creator Nic Pizzolatto has penned another gripping mystery.

Pizzolatto writes every episode (with assists from David Milch and Graham Gordy on Episodes 4 and 6, respectively), as well as directs two episodes. He's thoughtful with his approach, keeping just enough cards to his chest as the case is investigated in multiple periods.

The material in the first five episodes screened for press can come off a bit slow at points, with the vagueness being a bit frustrating to viewers solving the mystery a few steps ahead. However, it tends to always pay off. Patience is rewarded with twists and turns that — while they may lead to a somewhat expected result — come about in unpredictable ways.

Taking the strong story into account, the phrase "return to form" easily comes to mind with True Detective Season 3, and it's certainly true. However, what truly makes this chapter stand out is its willingness is take a step back to revel in what makes these characters — specifically Ali's — tick. It's not only a haunting mystery, but also a look at one man's struggle to find meaning in himself.

True Detective airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.


Photo Credit: HBO / Warrick Page