Why True Detective Season 3 Isn't As Hard To Follow, According To The Creator

mahershala ali wayne hays in the office true detective season 3

True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto went from being a TV wunderkind with the highly lauded first outing to target practice with the heavily panned Season 2. Over three years later, Pizzolatto is returning to HBO with the well-enough-received True Detective Season 3, which has much in common with the occult-driven freshman season. The new episodes might not be as difficult to follow, however, which Pizzolatto revealed while speaking with CinemaBlend's Jeff McCobb and other press outlets. In his words:

I did try to do this thing this year, and I hope we were successful, where I wanted to be like, 'No tricks up my sleeve.' Because 2015 and 1990 are happening at the same time as 1980, you're sort of constantly being told what is going to happen, like all the time. Depending on the viewers' experience or what they're trying to do, there is a way you can watch the show, and it's telling you everything that's going to happen before it happens. And I wanted to be able to do that to not play any cheap games with the viewer -- to respect their attention and their time -- but still reward them with revelation and reversal.

For those who might not know the basic details, True Detective's third season centers on the Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali's Detective Wayne Hays across its three timelines. In 1980, Wayne and partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are investigating a case involving two missing children in the Arkansas Ozarks. In 1990, Wayne is involved in a new line of inquiries. And in 2015, the war vet is revisiting the community-spoiling crime for a TV documentary. Sounds easy enough, but...

As anyone who's ever watched a high-minded drama knows, even a single timeline can warp the mind with enough new information being flung around. So three timelines could have been disastrous if Nic Pizzolatto's intentions were purely to mess with people. Instead, he has seemingly crafted an anti-confusing season of television where the most current timeline makes viewers aware of things they'll learn about in past narratives.

Of course, it'll probably be done in completely incoherent ways are only understandable with distant hindsight. But at least Nic Pizzolatto aimed to learn from past mistakes -- both his own and those of other drama TV creators -- by delivering a storyline that wasn't so focused on making its dark crimes as mysterious and complex as possible.

Basically, that meant Nic Pizzolatto had to work that much harder to craft the story in just such a way, and he talked about teetering on the brink of insanity thanks to his big board full of post-it notes stringing the timelines together. Thankfully, he was able to pull it off, and Pizzolatto credits star Mahershala Ali with being the glue that held it all together.

It was hard, but I hope it was successful, and it felt worthwhile. Especially seeing what Mahershala did with his performance. That's one of the things, is that it wouldn't have worked without his performance. You couldn't do this, you couldn't possibly try something like this without an actor who could do what he did. It programs all these subtle differences. He is playing the same character, but the guy is different, and it's in all these nuanced ways that I feel make the interwoven timelines digestible for an audience, and not confusing, I hope.

Having seen the first handful of episodes, I whole-heartedly agree with Nic Pizzolatto's compliment-filled take on Mahershala Ali's impact on True Detective Season 3. There are definitely non-Wayne elements that help audiences recognize which timeline they're in, from the technology to the vehicles and so on. However, the only hint anyone really needs is atop the actor's and character's head.

Beyond just helping to keep the timelines noted, True Detective immediately makes itself a contender for hair and makeup awards with Season 3, transporting fans across time via Mahershala Ali's hairdo. Wayne's earliest days saw him adhering to a proto-fro, while the 1990 timeline features the character's box-top look. The current day is marked by the elderly character's white hair and the deep lines worn into his face.

The timeline switcheroos aren't the only details within True Detective Season 3 that could cause confusion, considering all the facts involved with the missing children case. But that just makes it all the more important to have an ever-present visual anchoring everyone to the proper setting, so that more rabid attention can be given to street signs and background actors.

TV viewers will be able to judge for themselves how confusing things get when True Detective Season 3 premieres on HBO on Sunday, January 13, at 9:00 p.m. ET. To see what other new and returning shows will be hitting the small screen soon, head to our midseason premiere schedule.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.