Stifling atmosphere, deep and meaningful conversations and intersecting timelines are all present as the one-time cultural phenomenon tries to salvage its reputation with its third series

When True Detective (Sky Atlantic) first appeared in early 2014, it was impossible to predict that it would become the cultural phenomenon it did, even with the star power of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson firing it up from its core. Neither could anyone have anticipated the Icarus-like fall that came with its second season, which took its wares to California and disintegrated into a confusing and aimless mess that wasted the presence of Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell.

It is little wonder, then, that the third season, which opens with a double bill, has a sense of back-to-basics about it. There’s a hardboiled detective duo at the centre once again, Roland West and Wayne Hays, this time played by Stephen Dorff and an outstanding Mahershala Ali. They’re in Arkansas, investigating the disappearance of two children on bikes, made all the more ominous by the presence of creepy, hand-crafted dolls (a less rustic version of the twiggy effigies in season one, as if the maker had done an NVQ in arts and crafts). It’s a tough, grizzled man’s world, and Ali and Dorff have the gruff deep-and-meaningful mumblings to prove it. It’s as if Rust Cohle never left.

Season one had two timelines; season three has upped the ante to three. The initial case of the missing Purcell children takes place in 1980; Hays appears again in 1990, giving a deposition amid suggestions that the wrong culprit went away for whatever slowly unfolding crimes were committed; and once more in 2015, as an old man with dementia, scribbling his memories down, Memento-style, and giving an interview about the events of the past four decades to a television crew for a show called, wait for it, True Criminal.

This requires a significant amount of chutzpah, from the decision to have Ali play a man at ages 35, 45 and 70 – brave in the age of 4K and HD, although effective, as the prosthetics are incredibly good – to the certainty that this excruciatingly slow drip-feed of information is intriguing enough to span almost half a century. It pays off, to an extent. True Detective has always been a good-looking show, even in its second season, after the distinctive director Cary Fukunaga had left (he turned his TV eye to the visually arresting, if not entirely compelling, Maniac, for Netflix). It revels in building a gloomy, misanthropic world, and its atmosphere is stifling. The cuts between timelines are gorgeous and dreamlike. Naturally, everyone is a suspect, although it does pluck its candidates from a handbook of familiar tropes, from the grieving dad to the drinking, smoking, heavy-metal-loving teenagers and the paedophile who has managed to inveigle his way into volunteering at a local nursery, until Hays and West get their hands on him.

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