Even if you know nothing about “True Detective,” the HBO crime series that just debuted the first and second episodes of its third season, you might know the fanboy-ready phrase that a tripped-out Matthew McConaughey said early in the series: “Time is a flat circle.” That first season, set in Louisiana, was a triumph of Southern noir; season 2, set in Los Angeles and involving seemingly three times as many characters, was moody but congested. Now we’re back in the South, in Fayetteville, where the show’s Louisiana-born creator, Nic Pizzolatto, earned his MFA at the University of Arkansas. Set and shot in Northwest Arkansas, where virtually nothing else on TV is set or shot, and slimmed down to a single protagonist — Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as State Police Det. Wayne Hays — it’s back to feeling moody, reserved and unstuck from time.

We veer between 1980, 1990 and 2015. In ‘80, the crime: A young brother and sister get on their bikes late on a November afternoon and pedal off to see friends. Their dad Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) waves goodbye, then calls police when they don’t return after dark. In ‘90, a reckoning: Hays is being deposed after the conviction in the old case is being challenged, and we’re picking up new facts that shade the past. In ‘15, the aftermath: Hays, grayed and struggling with his own memories, and with the effects of the case on his family, is being asked to relive his investigation. Interviewers from a show called “True Criminal” are in his home, and the hall of mirrors starts giving that flat-circle feel, as Hays has to reflect on his reflections, and you hustle to keep up with facts that bend over the years.


If you’re looking for a catchphrase, so far the pick might as well be Hays’ pithy, “General rule is everybody’s lying. Period,” presumably except for him. Ali plays Hays as a mostly upright, reserved veteran from Conway comfortable standing just outside the action. When he and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, blond here and seemingly always itching for a fight) kill time at the dump drinking beers and taking idle potshots at rats, he swats down his friend’s pistol just as he’s about to shoot a fox. Sure, call it Hays’ spirit animal here: He was tracker and a pathfinder in ‘Nam who, early in their getting-to-know-you phase, tells Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), the English teacher who becomes his wife, that he spent a lot of time alone in the jungle. That Ali is black in an overwhelmingly white part of the state, under an all-white police command, adds to the sense that he’s working alone, even when he isn’t.

Hays’ trajectory, and the whys of how this case haunted him, are so far more interesting than figuring out what happened in the case itself. In some ways, two hours of TV is too early to start playing whodunnit when there are still six to go, but we can start crossing some suspects off the list. The fictional town of West Finger is obviously a nod to West Memphis and a wink at West Fork, the real town between Fayetteville, where Hays lives, and Devil’s Den State Park, where some dark early plot points turn. Early on, three shaggy teens sit drinking in a purple VW bug, scowling at the two kids bike past. Hays and West grill one of the teens over his choice of Black Sabbath T-shirt, and an early “Blair Witch”-like clue ties the crime to Halloween. The undertones of the West Memphis Three and “satanic panic” aren’t subtle if you lived through the ‘90s.


Still, aside from a sweet drone shot of the Christ of the Ozarks standing head and shoulders above the treetops of Eureka Springs, there’s not a lot of religiosity on display. Nor do you get more than a passing reference to the U of A. Rather, the kids’ metalworker father represents this version of 1980 Northwest Arkansas: blue collar, miserable with a wife he shotgun-wedded during her first pregnancy, now devastated without the kids. This is actually how you can tell a director doing a true crime story about Northwest Arkansas knows the area by more than reputation alone: When he doesn’t plant a family Bible beside every front-porch rocking chair.

This is where you’ll appreciate Pizzolatto making TV, especially if, like me, you happen to be a Fayetteville native born in the ‘80s. His 1980 Northwest Arkansas carries the washed-out look of our leafless, dead-grass winters. Boaty Detroit-built coupes and 1960-something pickups sit in front of yards bordered with chain-link fences. I’ve already seen writers describe the milieu as “poverty-stricken,” and something feels off about that read, especially if you lived it. (A fun game to play if you grew up in Arkansas is trying to figure out, in hindsight, whether you or your friends were ever “poor,” however you define that term. It’s harder than you think.) If you’ve ever eaten a meal out in Fayetteville, you’ll also recognize Herman’s and Hugo’s, forever both stuck in time.


There’s a talent in capturing a place that changed as quickly as Northwest Arkansas has during the past 40 years and nailing the seams there that have held fast. Story’s already spooky enough on its face, and here’s Pizzolatto bottling up ghosts on the side.

*Local notes: That was Arkansas acting legend Natalie Canerday (“Sling Blade,” “Shotgun Stories”) playing the feisty mother of Tom Purcell. Jonesboro native Jennifer Pierce Mathus was the daycare worker where the pedophile worked. I thought her husband, musician Jimbo Mathus, was one of Tom Purcell’s factory co-workers, but it was just a Northwest Arkansas bizarro, I later confirmed. North Little Rock’s Corbin Pitts, a veteran of The Rep and Murry’s Dinner Playhouse, played Mike, the kid who tells Hays that the Purcell girl got one of those creepy corn husk dolls during Halloween trick or treating. Former KARK anchor Jancey Sheats is all permed-up as a TV anchor, and KATV’s Alyson Courtney’s voice as a TV anchor can be heard at one point. Times contributor Autumn Tolbert has pointed out her sister’s big appearance. Who else did you recognize?