'True Detective' Season 3 Is About More Than A Police Investigation

Warrick Page/HBO

After a four-year hibernation, HBO's anthology crime series is finally back with a new cast and a new mystery. Following the much-acclaimed first season and the much-maligned second season, the show's third installment is looking to revitalize the tarnished brand. But what is True Detective Season 3 about? Given that it's an anthology, viewers can't rely on their knowledge of previous seasons to shed light on the upcoming batch of episodes; rather, the series will be starting over from scratch.

Fortunately, impatient viewers don't have to wait until the Jan. 13 premiere to see what's under the hood of this reportedly new and improved True Detective. According to HBO itself, here's what Season 3 is about: "Partner detectives investigate a macabre crime involving two missing children in the heart of the Ozarks, Arkansas. The story spans three decades." A pair of sleuths? A grisly murder? Multiple timelines? Must be True Detective.

This time, following in the footsteps of Season 1's odd-couple pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and Season 2's morose investigators Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell, are Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Green Book, Luke Cage) and Stephen Dorff (Blade). Ali in particular takes center stage in the show's promotional material, with Season 3 dropping in on his character, Detective Hayes, in three seminal periods of his life.

True crime aficionados and fans of shows like Making A Murderer, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and Dirty John will likely want to know which real-life case True Detective Season 3 is based off of. But don't take the first word of the show's title too literally; nothing about the HBO series is "true" in anything other than an abstract sense.

"True Detective takes its title from the pioneering pulp magazine True Detective," Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen explained in his review of Season 1, "which launched the true crime category in 1928 at the dawn of the golden age of the pulps, and folded in 1995 after decades of chasing grittier, grimier degrees of 'realism,' dead-ending in a gutter of smutty sleaze. But HBO's True Detective is not homage; the association is ironic. The pulp wallowed in sensationalism; the show, while disturbing, does not. The pulp was 'true' in that it profiled real-life crime; the show, all fiction, is concerned with philosophical truth and honesty."

Warrick Page/HBO

Being un-beholden to the truth turned out to be a good thing for creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto, who was able to make a major change to his lead character without the burden of being tied down by facts. Ali was originally approached to play the part of Dorff's character, the second-string supporting detective, who was written as a black man — but Ali wanted to play the lead. And so the race of the two characters was swapped, allowing Ali a chance to carry a high-profile HBO series, and allowing Pizzolatto to explore issues of race alongside his typical themes of masculinity and violence. There's also a romance between Ali's police detective character and a young school teacher, that might be the most interesting aspect of the season.

While True Detective may pride itself on gritty realism, there's nothing more "true" about Season 3 than other popular (fictional) crime dramas set in the Ozarks like Gone Girl, Winter's Bone, and Netflix's Ozark. So apologies to the more curious viewers out there, but there's no spoiling this solution ahead of time; you'll just have to wait and find out whodunnit as Pizzolatto unravels his own twisty, thorny mysteries over the next eight weeks.