When the first season of HBO’s True Detective began airing in January 2014, the show quickly became a phenomenon. The hard-boiled mystery, with its grimy aesthetic, idiosyncratic dialogue and hints of cosmic horror, felt like a breath of fresh air to many viewers and critics.
A second and third season followed in 2015 and 2019, respectively, with new casts and stories but carrying on the themes of crooked cops, non-linear narratives and crises of philosophy.
Now, five years since the last season, there’s a new True Detective of sorts. HBO’s marketing hasn’t been entirely clear whether True Detective: Night Country is technically the fourth season of True Detective or the first season of a new spinoff. (Its opening credits curiously say it’s “based on the series True Detective created by Nic Pizzolatto.”)
Night Country certainly feels like a different show. Unfortunately, that’s to its detriment.
Night Country boasts an impressive cast led by Jodie Foster and Kali Reis, playing two cops on opposing beats who get wrapped up in the disappearance of a team of scientists from a remote Alaskan research base.
The setting, a town so far north that it experiences weeks of darkness in winter, is a fun addition to the series’ milieu, as are the supporting players (including Fiona Shaw and John Hawkes).
Unfortunately, where previous seasons gave actors like Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell career-redefining roles playing characters brimming with darkness and secrets, Night Country’s characters don’t seem to have anything to hide.
New series writer-director Issa López, who helmed the 2017 Mexican horror darling Tigers Are Not Afraid, does not give Foster and Reis the crackling dialogue that Pizzolatto gave McConaughey.
Of course, Pizzolatto had the advantage of writing in his native New Orleans dialect of English, whereas this is López’s first English-language project. But it’s not a lack of dexterity with words that trips up Night Country. It’s the lack of subtext.
Foster and Reis’s characters aren’t corrupt or morally compromised. They’re merely prickly and brusque. Even the minor characters are constantly revealing their exact thoughts, feelings and motivations to anyone who will listen.
The plot mechanics are wielded with the same bluntness. This is, admittedly, only the first episode. The show still has five more weeks to improve. But where debut episodes of previous seasons felt like they were building mystery, this feels merely like laying track.
This is especially true of Night Country’s handling of the supernatural. Instead of a simmering metaphorical undercurrent enriching the themes of human evil, López announces it in this episode’s opening scenes, bad CGI and all.
Is it unfair to criticize Night Country for being too different from previous seasons of True Detective? Perhaps. It is, after all, a show that ostensibly reinvents itself with each season.
But these changes should at least feel as interesting as the things they’re replacing and should be done at least as well. Sadly, this doesn’t feel like a fresh, new take but a dull misstep. Here’s hoping it corrects course in the coming weeks.
Published in Volume 78, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 18, 2024)