Every Season of True Detective, Ranked

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A-list movie stars have been foraying into television in recent years. It’s a trend that really kicked into gear in 2014 with season 1 of True Detective, HBO’s anthology crime drama television series created and written by Nic Pizzolatto. The sprawling first of four installments featured Emmy-nominated performances by Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Interstellar) and Woody Harrelson (Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

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While Harrelson previously appeared on TV (Cheers), his focus has always been the cinema. And as McConaughey mainly stuck with movies up until this series’ release, it was refreshing and bold to see them own the small screen over the course of 10 heart-pounding episodes.

true detective
True Detective

Release Date
January 12, 2014
Cast
Mahershala Ali , Stephen Dorff , Carmen Ejogo , Scoot McNairy , Jodie Foster , Kali Reis , Matthew McConaughey , Woody Harrelson , Alexandra Daddario , John Hawkes , Colin Farrell , Vince Vaughn

Seasons
4

Updated Jan. 12, 2024: This article has been updated with additional information about season 4 of True Detective, along with additional features.

Each season is structured as a self-contained narrative, employing new cast ensembles and following new characters and settings. When season 3’s finale aired, Pizzolatto had confirmed he was working on a new idea. Lo and behold, season 4 of True Detective is finally here, with the first episode officially debuting on Jan. 14, 2024.

True Detective: Night Country will mark the first season of True Detective without Pizzolatto acting as showrunner or writer, though he is attached as an executive producer. Creative duties were delegated to Issa López (Tigers Are Not Afraid, Bad Girls), who also wrote and directed the first two episodes. This season takes us to the snowy plains of Alaska, with detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) investigating a series of disappearances at a local research station. True Detective: Night Country marks the first time the series has used a subtitle in its season title.

We’ve opted to look back on the seasons helmed by Pizzolatto as we look forward to what True Detective: Night Country has to offer. Without further delay, these are our rankings for the best seasons of True Detective.

3 Season 2 (2015)

The second season of True Detective premiered in June 2015 and contains eight episodes. The storyline finds three law enforcement officers — detective Ray Velcoro (the most excellent Colin Farrell), Sheriff Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and California Highway Patrol Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) — teaming up against a scorched California backdrop to solve the murder of politician Ben Caspere. Meanwhile, career criminal Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) attempts to legitimize his business with his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), by investing in a rail project overseen by Caspere. However, following Caspere’s death, Jordan starts his own independent investigation.

Season 2 Was a Little Too Ambitious

While giving a valiant effort to shake up the O.G. formula, this season, unfortunately, misses the mark overall. It opted for more of a difficult-to-follow, interweaving storyline centered around criminals and cops alike — differing significantly from season 1’s nonlinear, two-sided character study. Despite its earnest intentions to expand, True Detective season 2 falls short of its past success. Let’s not forget that the first season was written and carefully constructed over years of diligent work, while the second season had a tight turnaround.

For all its messiness, however, this season is benefited enormously by another strong ensemble, including an interestingly dramatic turn by Vaughn. And that dream sequence in episode 2 echoing Twin Peaks, plus a similarly dreamy orgy in episode 6, both mark season highlights.

2 Season 3 (2019)

The third season of True Detective premiered in January 2019 and also contains eight episodes. This time around, we follow detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) across decades as they investigate the disappearance of two children. This installment’s Southern backdrops, nonlinear narrative, and tortuously unsolved mystery are among the key elements that fans will remember from the universally acclaimed first season. The results in season 3, however, aren’t quite as successful.

One of the great benefits of this season is that it plays with the concept of memory, establishing how we perceive critical events in our lives. This is done by its having its “true detective” Hays (Ali) suffer from dementia, which clouds his memory of the unsolved crime and plagues him with hallucinations. There’s also the endless obsession with time that defined True Detective’s first season. Like that season, this one takes place in multiple time periods. But where season 3 eclipses season 1 is in its willingness to give the audience just enough information to go on to start to fill in the blanks. The mystery remains obscure, but the descent into Hays’ preoccupation with solving it is front and center across all three time periods.

Most of the performances in True Detective season 3 are, for the most part, as good as those we watched in season 1. In addition to Ali, Dorff also gives an excellent performance as his partner. Additionally, Carmen Ejogo and especially Scoot McNairy give stellar performances as Amelia Reardon, the future wife of Wayne Hays, and Tom Purcell, the distressed father of the missing children.

But similar to season 2, this season is hurt by the lack of one distinct vision. Jeremy Saulnier helms the first two episodes, while Daniel Sackheim and Nic Pizzolatto himself split directorial duties this time around. The direction is generally stronger than it was in season 2, but it doesn’t feel quite as focused and cinematic as it was during the original installment.

1 Season 1 (2014)

The first season of True Detective premiered in January 2014 and contains eight episodes as well. It revolves around a pair of homicide detectives named Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey) as they delve into the case of a deranged ritualistic serial killer whose crimes they first encountered 17 years ago. They must then revisit the investigation, along with several other unsolved crimes. During this time, Hart’s infidelity threatens his marriage to Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), while Cohle struggles to cope with his troubled past.

True Detective’s First Season Is Still Its Best

True Detective‘s first season explores themes of masculinity and Christianity. Critics have analyzed the show’s portrayal of women, its auteurist sensibility, and the influence of comics and horror fiction on its storyline. There is a lot to appreciate in True Detective‘s first season, particularly in how it crafts a mood and a stark sense of atmosphere, which gives its existential pondering a muted weight.

Ultimately, it’s McConaughey’s portrayal of Rust that will go down as the show’s most iconic feature. His performance makes perfect use of the actor’s mystic radiance, and his sing-song way of speaking is perfectly in-tune with Pizzolatto’s verbose writing style. Together, they work in harmony.

And let’s not forget Cary Joji Fukunaga’s unique, visually stunning direction across all the first installment’s episodes. Remember that incredibly long tracking shot at the end of that landmark fourth episode? His direction is sorely missed in the series’ follow-up seasons.

Stream True Detective on Max

Are you worried that True Detective: Night Country won’t live up to the hype? You’re in luck, as season 4 has set a new record for the franchise in terms of review scores. Check out our video below for more information.

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