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All the True Detective seasons, ranked

Kali Reis and Jodie Foster hold flashlights in True Detective: Night Country.
Michele K. Short / HBO

Ten years ago, True Detective made its debut on HBO and reminded viewers that the premium cable network could deliver TV shows that were several cuts above the programming from its rival networks. True Detective quickly became a cultural phenomenon that captured the imaginations of its viewers and earned it a fast renewal. However, the show had a somewhat rocky path over the last decade, before the fourth season, True Detective: Night Country, revitalized the franchise earlier this year.

Thanks to Night Country, HBO has confirmed that there will be a fifth season of True Detective. And now that the current season is over, it’s time to look back at all of the True Detective seasons and rank them from worst to first.

4. True Detective season 2

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in True Detective season 2.

The one thing about True Detective season 2 that no one should fault is the cast. Colin Farrell (The Batman), Rachel McAdams, and Vince Vaughn are true movie stars. Taylor Kitsch is less so, but he’s still working regularly over a decade after his fun turn in Disney’s John Carter couldn’t save it from bombing. What doomed True Detective‘s second season is the man who was responsible for the whole show to begin with: Nic Pizzolatto.

After the triumph of the first season, Pizzolatto had free rein to do almost anything he wanted in season 2. And what he did was create some of the most unlikable leading characters ever on a prestige series, to the point that viewers were actively rooting for Farrell’s Detective Ray Velcoro to die when his life was in jeopardy at the end of episode 2. This season also had too many main characters and a bizarre mishmash of subplots.

3. True Detective season 3

Mahershala Ali in True Detective season 3.

What saved True Detective after its disastrous second season? The addition of Mahershala Ali and veteran screenwriter David Milch, who previously created HBO’s Deadwood. Ali was courted to play a supporting part before he convinced Pizzolatto to cast him in the leading role as Detective Wayne Hays. As for Milch, he co-wrote an episode of the series with Pizzolatto, although the latter still handled most of the scripts by himself.

The third season also had an even more ambitious narrative than either of its predecessors, as events unfolded in 1980, 1990, and 2015 before the revelations finally came together near the end of the season. Ali was also flanked by a strong supporting cast including Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, and Ray Fisher. But there was no question that this season belonged to Ali from start to finish.

2. True Detective: Night Country

Two women stand over ice and look.
HBO / Max

Pizzolatto had no creative involvement with the most recent season, True Detective: Night Country. In fact, Pizzolatto has taken several indirect shots at the new team, especially over the links between Night Country and season 1. The new showrunner, Issa López, wrote or co-wrote and directed every episode, and she also included several callbacks to the first season. While True Detective‘s inaugural season never confirmed that the occult was real, López was pretty overt about it. She even introduced Travis Cohle (Erling Eliasson), the late father of Rust Cohle, who appears as a ghost.

Fortunately, López didn’t skimp on the star power, as she cast Jodie Foster as Chief Liz Danvers opposite Kali Reis as Trooper Evangeline Navarro. There was a great deal of animosity between Danvers and Navarro from the beginning of the season, and subsequent episodes revealed how they had once been partners and why their relationship deteriorated so badly. Coming back together for a case helped heal the rift between Danvers and Navarro, even though the finale didn’t offer all of the answers to this season’s mysteries.

1. True Detective season 1

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson standing in an office in True Detective.

Sometimes everything just comes together so perfectly that it’s almost impossible to recreate that impact. True Detective attracted a lot of attention by putting Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in their respective leading roles as detectives Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Martin “Marty” Hart. And both men delivered with some of the best acting of their careers as characters that were incredibly compelling.

Pizzolatto and Fukunaga’s collaboration created a show that felt like the fusion of film and television, with dazzling visuals, thrilling sequences, and disturbing clues that something otherworldly was in play. This caused the show to quickly become a pop culture sensation as viewers tried to unravel the clues in real time. However, the one lesson from this season that seems to have been forgotten is that the implication that the occult and supernatural powers are real is far more terrifying than confirmation of the same. True Detective season 1 had us on the edge of our seats while we waited to learn what the Yellow King meant, and whether Carcosa was an actual place. None of the other seasons have been able to recreate that sensation.

Watch True Detective on Max.

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Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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