(CNN) – If you subscribe to the opinion that the original “True Detective” was terrific and the second edition, well, wasn’t, the third marks a bracing case of going back to the future. That’s because this latest season largely mirrors the first, unspooling a mystery across three distinct time frames while receiving an enormous star-power boost courtesy of Mahershala Ali.
An Oscar winner for “Moonlight” — and possibly again for “Green Book” — landing Ali at this juncture represents a casting coup on the order of the original Matthew McConaughey-Woody Harrelson pairing. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto has responded with a crisp, bare-bones story that pretty dutifully mirrors the original template, while throwing in a few distinctive wrinkles, including the little matter of an African-American detective working in Arkansas circa 1980.
That would be Ali’s Wayne Hays, who catches what appears to be a straightforward missing-kid case, with a young boy and girl having disappeared. He’s charged with investigating it along with his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), running into some serious road blocks, including the thorny relationship between the children’s dad (Scoot McNairy) and their mother (Mamie Gummer).
What transpired, however, is clearly more complicated, which dribbles out in two subsequent periods: A decade later, when new evidence arises; and 25 years after that, when a documentary crew (think “Making a Murderer”) is delving into what’s now a cold case, forcing the now-retired Hays to test his fading memory, and wonder what new evidence they have discovered that might have rekindled such interest.
The main difference from the first “True Detective” is that the role of Hays’ partner is somewhat downplayed (although Dorff is terrific as well), in part because Hays embarks on an equally significant relationship with Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo). They meet because she’s a teacher who knows the children, but their arcs become entwined — again, in a manner that has to be gradually discerned as Pizzolatto flits among the separate timelines.
Everyone here is good, and the show works well as a conventional mystery. What elevates it are the brooding atmosphere and Ali’s magnetic performance, from his dogged pursuit of the facts in his younger days to his convincing vulnerability in his elderly ones.
“True Detective” helped give a major push to the limited-series format in 2014 (McConaughey and Harrelson, it’s worth noting, still hold producer titles on the show), with the challenge being that replicating the spark of stand-alone series — with nothing more than the title as connective tissue — represents a formidable challenge. The second was enough of a disappointment to risk killing the franchise.
One can argue about the wisdom of repeatedly going back to the same well, as is Hollywood’s preference, but strictly as a viewing proposition, the third “True Detective” has gotten its mojo back.
“True Detective” premieres Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.