True Detective Is Actually Good Again

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo:Michele K. Short/HBO

We get it: There’s an overwhelming number of television shows right now. The streaming landscape is an impractical maze, and the good stuff easily gets lost in the shuffle. But most of us can still find one show that cuts through the noise. We call this “appointment viewing” — or the time you carve out in your busy schedule to watch the show you’ll want to unpack the next day with your friends while it’s still on your mind. Tune in here each month to read what writer Michel Ghanem, a.k.a. @tvscholar, deems worthy of a group-chat deep dive.

Last year, we covered everything from prestige miniseries, including Dead Ringers and I’m a Virgo, to under-the-radar comedies like Dreaming Whilst Black and Platonic. This year, we have our work cut out for us with a ton of TV scheduled to premiere before the Emmy consideration deadline in May. Luckily, January is off to a strong start with the promising return of HBO’s True Detective anthology, this time featuring powerhouse performances from Jodie Foster and newcomer Kali Reis.

How is this season different from the first three?

Although you need no prior knowledge to watch, True Detective: Night Country picks up the familiar structure of the first three seasons by following a troubled detective duo — Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (professional boxer turned actor Kali Reis) — as they work to solve the mysterious murder of a group of scientists at an Arctic research center near the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska. The season takes place over roughly two weeks around the winter solstice, when the sun stops rising in their remote community. While previous seasons may have dabbled in the occult, this season tilts more horror-supernatural, at times reminiscent of a Mike Flanagan show (hello, jump scares and apparitions!) with a tantalizing murder mystery at center.

The season’s focus is primarily on Foster and Reis, who are magnetic together as both character foils and acting partners. Liz is the pragmatic, no-bullshit, sharply observant detective to Evangeline’s tough but spiritually intuitive investigator. They’re both traumatized by their shared and individual pasts, obviously—this is True Detective, after all.

The lead cast is rounded out by Finn Bennett, who plays protégé detective Peter Prior in his first major television role. Supporting characters are played by John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers). There are also excellent performances by Indigenous supporting actors like Anna Lambe, Isabella Star LaBlanc, Aka Niviâna, and Joel Montgrand.

Where can I watch it?

HBO Sundays are so back. True Detective: Night Country premieres on Sunday, January 14, with episodes airing weekly until February 18. Unlike the previous eight-episode seasons, this fourth season is a brief six-episode journey. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto has taken a step back from the franchise but remains as executive producer, passing the showrunner reins to auteur filmmaker Issa López, who directs and writes every episode and brings her horror background to the show’s tone. She’s joined by a small handful of writers in later episodes, including Chris Mundy (Ozark) and Katrina Albright (Shining Girls). Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski are also listed as executive producers.

Night Country is the closest North America gets to Nordic noir, a genre typically set in Scandinavia that allows the icy, cold landscape to serve as a backdrop to detectives solving a murder case (think The Killing or The Bridge). There have been a few somewhat similar shows recently, like FX’s A Murder at the End of the World or Max’s international co-production of The Head. But where Nordic noir may drag on a slow-burn, Night Country sticks around just long enough to make an absorbing and haunting impact.

Wait, I thought True Detective fell off?

More or less. The first season of True Detective starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson back in 2014 and is universally beloved by HBO watchers as one of the most compelling seasons of television in the last decade. The subsequent two seasons attracted celebrated actors like Rachel McAdams and Mahershala Ali but weren’t able to rise to the heights of the show’s inaugural installment. Night Country is the first season of True Detective that’s been given a subtitle, demarcating it from previous installments, and rightfully so.

The season’s world-building is reminiscent of Mare of Easttown, bringing alive the tight-knit locale. The Indigenous community and their clash against the settlers on their land — from protesting a local mine to small details throughout the season, like the lack of clean drinking water and inflated grocery prices — are quite notable this season as well. Like Mare, there is also plenty of family entanglement that frequently gets in the way of solving the case. Poor Peter can’t get away from Liz’s orders at the police station on Christmas Eve to spend the evening with an increasingly frustrated wife, all under the shadow of his ominous father, another police officer who is also his co-worker. Meanwhile, Liz has allegedly slept with the most eligible men in town, to Evangeline’s comedic delight. There’s the local drunk driver and the recluse who keeps to herself but solves a key component of the case. Ennis feels real and lived in.

Small-town charm aside, it’s really the show’s horror tone that sets this season apart. At times, it reminded me of HBO’s short-lived Stephen King adaptation The Outsider but with a particular focus on Indigenous spirituality and folklore. Some believe that at night, the boundary between the spiritual and material worlds thins and overlaps. This show considers what the witching hour looks like all day long in a town confronting death head on. By using death and its paranormal aftermath as a through-line, Night Country finds a new way to personify the lead detectives’ trauma. Sometimes it’s not totally clear if a character is having a vision or a flashback, and who knows what else is changing their brain chemistry without sunlight for days on end, but you can’t help but feel there’s always something watching in the cover of darkness.

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True Detective Is Actually Good Again