"She's awake": True Detective: Night Country gets off to a spooky, snowy, samey start

The first episode of True Detective: Night Country is rock solid, but can this new season boldly go beyond where so many grizzled detectives have gone before?
True Detective: Night Country
True Detective: Night Country /

True Detective is back with another eerie anthology season, subtitled Night Country. We're introduced to a new group of a characters, a new setting, and a new grisly crime. This time it's a group of scientists who mysteriously disappear from an isolated Alaskan research station only to turn up frozen out in the snowy countryside, their bodies chopped into pieces and their faces fixed in cries of terror. "She's awake," we're told several times throughout the episode. Who is she, why was she asleep, and did she do this? Is she some sort of ancient spirit, a modern technological monster, or a human threat?

These are the questions our cast of characters will spend the next several episodes teasing out. We have Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster), the grizzled senior detective. Liz has a past with grizzled junior detective Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), who's convinced that the incident at the research station is connected to the case of a murdered native named Annie (Annie's tongue was ripped out of her body, and a severed human tongue was found on the research station). Liz works with father-son policing duo Hank and Peter Prior (John Hawkes and Finn Bennett); Peter may have more loyalty to her than to his dad. She also has rebellious stepdaughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc) to deal with. And then there's Rose (Fiona Shaw), a local woman who finds the bodies of the scientists after being led there by a dead man.

These are the pieces and the puzzle. It's compelling. Jodie Foster, of course, is effortlessly commanding as Liz Danvers — she basically invented the female-led detective drama with The Silence of the Lambs back in 1991 — but the supporting players hold up their ends of the bargain, too. Kali Reis is intense and vulnerable as Agent Navarro; she's hard but has a heart. There's a sexy scene in the middle where Navarro hooks up with a f**kbuddy who wants more from their relationship. The sex is aggressive to the point of being alarming, but afterwards they joke about the guy's Spongebob toothbrush and bring things back down to earth. I also liked Finn Bennett as Peter Prior, silly alliterative TV name notwithstanding. He's married, has a young kid, and provides some fresh-faced innocence to contrast with all the grizzled energy onscreen.

I've said the word "grizzled" several times already in this review, which brings up a problem: as well-made as Night Country is, and it is very well-made, the "grizzled, tortured cop solves mysterious murders" show has been done a lot by this point. Obviously there are the prior seasons of True Detective; Night Country bears particular similarity to the first, which paired up Woody Harrelsson and Matthew McConaughey as an oil-and-water detective duo much in the way Foster and Reis are paired up here. But there's also Mare of Easttown, an HBO drama that came out just a couple years ago. There's McNulty on The Wire, an HBO drama from years before that. There's Luther in Luther and Sipowicz in NYPD Blue and Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, another show where death came calling on a small isolated town. When watching Night Country, sometimes I thought of Philbert, the Bojack Horseman parody of a grizzled tortured detective show. They did that in 2018.

I enjoyed watching the first episode of Night Country. Again, the characters are interesting and the actors excellent. The Alaskan setting, where the sun doesn't set for months of winter, provides a good creepy vibe, and some wonderful visuals; I loved the shot of Liz and company at the research station while curtains of snow fell behind them outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. But after so many similar shows, I hope Night Country doesn't settle for just being another good one. I hope it brings something new to the table.

True Bullet Points

  • Rose discovers the bodies of the scientists after being led through the snow by a long-haired man named Travis, who apparently has been dead for some time. He does an eerie dance in a harsh glow of a flashlight. It reminded me very much of Bob from Twin Peaks, if we're going back to our reference bucket.

Episode Grade for True Detective: Night Country, "Part 1": B

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