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True Detective: Night Country’ review: A long day’s journey into … just another cop show

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune
(TNS)

A cop show is a cop show is a cop show — even when it’s packaged as a prestige endeavor with an Oscar-winning star and artful care given to the show’s look and feel. HBO’s anthology series “True Detective” has been an exercise in distracting audiences from this fact.

It was most effective in its first season, thanks to the Southern Gothic visuals captured by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and Matthew McConaughey’s performance as a disillusioned cop playing mind games with a couple of interrogators. The dialogue from creator Nic Pizzolatto was rich (if nonsensical) and McConaughey made a meal of it. There’s real entertainment value in that. But in the end, it was a lot of hot air and little actual substance. If you’re looking for a television show that has something to say, well, best to look elsewhere.

Even so, the first season inspired — still inspires — hyperbole. Whatever its transcendent qualities, successive seasons have struggled to recapture that, which is the case with Season 4.

This time out, the series has an amended title — “True Detective: Night Country” — and a new writer, showrunner and director in Issa López. The setting is a small Alaskan town near the Arctic Circle. It’s late December and, for a few weeks each winter, the sun never rises; daily life takes place amid the inky darkness of night. That’s an intriguing starting point.

When a team of research scientists goes missing from their impressively comfortable outpost, they’re eventually located out on the ice, naked and dead, their faces frozen in a rictus of fear. What the hell happened?

Jodie Foster plays the scowling police chief who’s on the case. Eventually she teams up with a former colleague, played by the boxer-turned-actor Kali Reis, who matches Foster scowl for scowl. The pair have professional history and things didn’t end well. But Reis’ cop is convinced the deaths of researchers are connected to the cold-case murder of an Indigenous woman they never solved.

There’s the suggestion of something creepy and otherworldly at the root of these crimes, but ultimately our capacity for inflicting harm on one another has depressingly human origins.

There’s a compelling story buried in here, about the town’s indigenous Iñupiaq women, and how and why they operate on the margins. “True Detective” mostly keeps them on the edges of the story, as well. The finale suggests a more interesting story that could have been front and center.

But then, “True Detective” isn’t designed to go against the grain. Over its four seasons, we watch as problems are caused (or ignored) by individual cops. But existing structures go unchallenged — the proverbial bad guy is always external, rather than baked into the system itself. Centering the season primarily on women doesn’t change that.

Foster and Reis play cops who are blunt and suffer no fools, which is interesting, to a point. But these traits become stand-ins for character development. They are outrunning — suppressing, really — haunted memories, and their relationships with men are often transactional, or apathetic. Judging by the unrelenting dysfunction of the men in their orbit, this isn’t the wrong choice.

You need a tough hide to survive in this place. No one talks about seasonal depression or struggles with the lack of sunlight. It’s just a fact of life. Even humor is in short supply. The discordant sounds of the Beach Boys blaring merrily on a truck stereo during the sunless season will have to suffice.

Interviews leading up to the show’s premiere have emphasized a link between Foster’s police chief and her role as Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs” because … both are in law enforcement? The comparison is a stretch. The 1991 movie allowed Foster to show us what thinking through a problem could look like. In “True Detective,” her character is an anti-pensive type with plenty of emotional baggage, but little opportunity to let that play out across her face.

The passage of time is hard to track, as one all-night day blends into the next, but even the mood is tough to parse. The mere fact of darkness — literal and metaphorical — isn’t enough and the season can’t find its footing, tonally or narratively. Even a winding, complicated story needs to be told with some clarity to get its hooks in you, and I’m reminded once again that shows from the U.K. have the U.S. beat when it comes to troubled cops standing in the gloomy chill and staring off into the distance.

“True Detective’s” first season was dense with grandiose themes — “What does it all mean?” being one of them — but it was a murder mystery at its core, no matter how much it tried to subvert that template. The show’s fourth season reveals another truism: A story cannot exist on vibes alone.

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‘TRUE DETECTIVE: NIGHT COUNTRY’

2 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: 9 p.m. ET Sundays on HBO (streaming on Max)

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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