The Return of TV’s Most Soulful Show

Ever since C. Auguste Dupin pinned the death of a Parisian mother and daughter on an escaped orangutan, the murder mystery has remained one of mainstream culture’s most enduring, flexible, and popular narrative formats. The lonesome detective—with a stern constitution, hair-trigger nonsense detector, and endearing alcohol dependency—is a reliably compelling protagonist, capable of crossing legal lines and meting out justice. This figure is found throughout books and film, but especially on television, where dozens of detectives—be they police officers, licensed PIs, or talented amateurs—have charmed viewers over the decades.

Meet Liz Danvers (played by Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis, a former boxer turned actor), two of the latest entrants into this wide canon. Danvers and Navarro are policewomen stationed in Ennis, a fictional Alaskan town where the gruff white residents frequently clash with the region’s Indigenous Iñupiat people over the economy, environment, and other territorial concerns. Danvers has a bad habit of sleeping with the local men and feuding with their wives; Navarro, an Iñupiat herself, is frequently caught between the soft racism of the police force and the suspicious eyes of her people. The two women have some unexplained beef, making for natural tension when they’re roped into the same case: the grotesque deaths of all the scientists at a nearby research station who had been studying the origins of life on Earth.

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This scenario might unfold on any number of shows, which could air on any number of cable networks, but it’s more notable because it unfolds underneath one specific banner: HBO’s True Detective, an anthology series about unsettling murders and the serious people who solve them, which became an overnight phenomenon a decade ago and fizzled out just as quickly. Each of its prior three seasons opened with a different murder, but the show’s particular flavor was using these murders to explore how American institutions such as the Church, the government, and corporations use their power to marginalize the powerless and control society. And though many fictionalized detectives are moody and self-destructive, True Detective’s breakthrough debut season transcended formula with its lead character Rust Cohle, portrayed by veteran movie star Matthew McConaughey, who approached his job as part holy man, part super cop, all heartthrob.

Perhaps no other modern show benefitted as much from the phrasing of its title: What made for a “true detective”? Was it Cohle’s electric instinct for sniffing out bone-rotting evil? His partner Marty Hart’s (a perfectly sardonic Woody Harrelson) dogged commitment to the case, even at great personal peril? Or maybe it was something more profound, the show suggested season to season, as it followed characters mired in a sludgy existential malaise—people disgusted with human behavior yet driven to protect those most hurt by it. They had heady conversations about the nature of reality. (“Time is a flat circle.”) They made great intuitive leaps that most company men and desk jockeys could never even dream up. They refused to get tangled in departmental bureaucracy. To paraphrase a line from Mad Men, the show implied that while other televised detectives were sort of faking it, True Detective’s detectives … were true. And it made for consistently fascinating television, even as critics soured on the second season and politely accepted the third.

True Detective: Night Country arrives after a five-year hiatus that saw creative duties pass from the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto (now credited only with the nebulous role of executive producer), to the Mexican writer-director Issa López, who’s given the series a facelift. First off, we have two female leads on a show that was initially critiqued for its portrayal of women. There’s a theme song from Billie Eilish, a reliable way for institutions to signal their interest in reaching a different audience. And a fresh setting: frigid and desolate Alaska, a marked contrast from seasons set in swampy Louisiana, sprawling Los Angeles, and the back roads of Arkansas.

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But Night Country is deeply indebted to what came before it. Its first episode, which airs Sunday night, flies by familiar signposts: gruesome deaths, environmental decay, flirtations with supernatural horror. Both Danvers and Navarro are haunted by something in their past, which contributes to their depressive outlook: When another character suggests that Navarro’s belief in God “must be nice,” as it means believing we’re not alone, the policewoman replies, “No, we’re alone. God, too.” And, most obviously, there are several direct references to the first season of True Detective that go beyond the cutesy Easter egg into what feels like an explicit attempt at world-building: The spirals make their return, and we appear to meet the father of an original character.

This balance is tricky to strike: gesturing at your intent to forge a new direction while heavily invoking what came before you. And although the show is not quite a “return to form,” it’s a nice bit of Sunday-night programming that scratches the itch for a gripping detective story. The murders are disturbing. The supernatural stuff is intriguing. Danvers and Navarro crackle when paired in the same scene: “My spirit animal eats old fucking white ladies like you for breakfast,” Navarro snarls during one of their early tiffs, and a later episode brings back the beloved “two cops driving and shooting the breeze” dynamic of the first season. López, who earned attention with her spooky 2017 feature, Tigers Are Not Afraid, conjures an uneasy and foreboding atmosphere: Ennis is not a happy place, its denizens do not like one another, and everyone’s secrets are ready to boil over. As in the other seasons of True Detective, there’s an awareness of how people are birthed by their surroundings—and, in turn, of how those surroundings are eager to swallow them whole.

My hesitations pertain to structure. The season’s first episodes hew closely to a procedural whodunit, resembling a standard network show about straightforward police work. Danvers has a habit of declaring “The question is …” as a stentorian means of both educating whomever she’s talking to and catching the audience up—and though Navarro eventually dings her for this habit, baking critiques of your show into the dialogue is distractingly self-conscious. (Pizzolatto may have been many things: pretentious, combative, a stereotypical “male writer.” But his work wasn’t self-conscious, and it was better for it.) The show is also familiar in more ways than one: Besides the first season of True Detective, one more show that Night Country resembles is Mare of Easttown, another procedural HBO detective program that cast an Oscar-winning actor as a standoffish, sexually forward policewoman with a heartbreaking backstory who tries to solve a small-town murder that, surprise, threatens to upend the small town.

But Mare of Easttown was a great show, at least, and the more that Night Country rolls on, the more it embraces the mystery: not just “What happened here?” but the invisible forces that compel people to abandon their self-regard and push toward some more authentic truth about being alive. A piece of art can ask many questions, but “What is the purpose of our time on Earth?” is a grand one—and, viral memes aside, True Detective has made for absorbing television because of its willingness to entertain the uncomfortable answers that come out after a couple of beers, a few too many dark nights of the soul. Something very eerie is happening in Ennis, and Danvers and Navarro won’t be the same when they figure it out. That’s enough to keep me watching, and enough to seriously justify the revival of the True Detective moniker.

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