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'Night Country' is the best 'True Detective' season since the original

Jodie Foster and Kali Reis star in <em>True Detective: Night Country.</em>
Jodie Foster and Kali Reis star in True Detective: Night Country.

It's been so long since the previous edition of HBO's True Detective — and so much longer since its first and most famous installment in 2014 — that making connections between the original story and the series' new, six-episode fourth season, Night Country, may be stretching things.

Except that Issa López, the director and chief writer of this current season, intentionally evokes some of the elements that made that first story so gripping. Written and directed by and starring different people, this new edition also has a horrifying crime scene, a clash between two investigators with very different personalities and approaches, and a sprinkling of supernatural elements that may or may not be real.

The setting this time is a remote town in Alaska, where the entire crew of scientists at an Arctic research station has gone missing, leaving behind phones and uneaten sandwiches. At first, it seems like a matter for the local cops, who enter the abandoned research station to investigate. There's Peter Prior, a young officer played by Finn Bennett; his father Hank, a veteran local cop on the same force, played by John Hawkes; and Liz Danvers, the chief of police, played by Jodie Foster.

It becomes clear that this group of cops has its conflicts — but conflicts run all through this small town. There are the native Alaskans versus the polluting mine operators, but there also are mothers against daughters, sisters against sisters, husbands against wives, and so on. Maybe even the living versus the dead.

The primary conflict is between Foster's Chief Danvers and just about everyone. Most prominently, she has a fiery past with Det. Evangeline Navarro, who's interested in this new case — but who still has issues about a murder the two women, when they were partnered together, were unable to solve.

It's this new case, though, that brings Danvers and Navarro back together, working in a state of almost constant friction as the clues — and mysteries and bodies — start piling up. The two leads work well together, and are very impressive. Kali Reis, an indigenous champion boxer turned actor, plays Navarro; this role has her entering a whole new ring, and she's triumphant here, too.

Foster, who has several emotionally raw scenes as Danvers, carries the weight of this True Detective series impeccably, and confidently. As an actor, she's covered this kind of territory before, just as brilliantly, in The Silence of the Lambs. And she's no stranger to television, either. Her first TV acting job was on an episode of Mayberry, R.F.D in 1968.

True Detective: Night Country is the best entry in this anthology series since the original — and this time, as with the first time, it's the direction and the mood as well as the acting and writing. As director, López gets every drop of tension and horror out of her scripts: A few times, I actually gasped at what was happening.

And the Alaskan location scenes, filmed in Iceland, make for some of the most remote and desolate winter panoramas since Stanley Kubrick filmed The Shining. Also adding significantly to the mood is the music — including the theme that opens each episode, a superbly appropriate use of the Billie Eilish recording, "Bury A Friend." It's creepy, distinctive, and haunting — just like this new, 10th-anniversary edition of True Detective.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.