What to watch: True Detective back for best season yet

What to watch: True Detective back for best season yet

Three exceptional detective series — including one that features an iconic San Francisco PI in a new locale — top our roundup this week, along with an edgier Marvel series on Disney+ that features an American Indian anti-hero.

“True Detective: Night Country”: The fourth installment in the praised but uneven neo-noir HBO series plunges watchers deep into the murky seasonal darkness of frostbitten Ennis, Alaska, a hardscrabble spot where iron-willed detective Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) don the bulkiest of parkas while they probe the bizarre disappearance of eight male scientists working at a remote research center. The investigation leads the tenacious women, each of whom is combating their own demons, down one of the most macabre paths that this venerable series has ever trekked as it dredges up a savage unsolved murder of an activist. The groundwork paves a return to form for “True Detective” in a season that’s as bold and original as the first one with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.

Showrunner/co-writer/director and executive producer Issa López (“Tigers Are Not Afraid”) deserves the credit for putting the series back on track. She evocatively and authentically re-creates what life is like for the hardened inhabitants of this rugged fictional town where mysticism holds just as much weight, sometimes more, as deductive reasoning. True to her horror roots,  López coats “Detective” with a supernatural veneer, which is applied with a measured hand throughout all six of its handwringing, eerie episodes. (There’s a brief, clever tip of the hat to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” in Episode 1; watch for it.)

López is enabled in her efforts by two strong female protagonists (a first in this male-dominated series) played well by her two stars, and a stellar supporting cast. And what a pleasure it is to watch Foster in action again, a gifted actor who expresses a cluster of moods with a blinkable glance and the smallest of gestures. She crawls into the raw psyche of Liz, a real survivor who’s harshly judged by townsfolk for her sexual appetites. Reis is her equal in every way. The former boxer struck like a viper in her debut in 2021’s “Catch the Fair One” (rent it) and again taps into a roiling turmoil for another visceral, rage-stuffed performance. Other standouts include durable John Hawkes as Hank, a shifty detective that Liz works with; and Finn Bennett as Hank’s do-gooding son who is Liz’s badgered but tireless deputy.

Their acting fireworks mirror the combustible nature of “True Detective’s” satisfyingly twist-filled narrative that goes beyond an average murder mystery and its resolution. As with all the “True Detective” series, this is an atmospheric mood piece that pries open what lies festering underneath the darkest of human nature and possibility. Details: 4 stars out of 4; first episode drops Jan. 14 on HBO and will be available on Max with an episode dropping Sunday until Feb. 18.

“Echo”: With its first American Indian-focused action series on Disney+, Marvel Universe regains the storytelling grip that’s been absent from many of its big-screen projects. This mature-themed (there’s violence and profanity) five-parter centers on the badass Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma first introduced on “Hawkeye” opposite Jeremy Renner, who makes a welcome guest appearance along with Daredevil (Charlie Cox). Maya, who is deaf and has a prosthetic leg, is fueled by vengeance since she lost her mother as a child in a horrific car accident that she feels responsible for, making her an anti-hero with a backstory and legacy (she has visions linked to events from American Indians past) Her move from Oklahoma to New York finds her crossing paths with one of the best Earthbound Marvel villains — Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio, playing it, wisely, to the rafters).  After a bloody showdown in New York, Maya hops on her motorcycle and returns to her childhood home of Tamaha, where she reconnects with her skating rink-owner uncle Henry “Black Crow” Lopez (Chaske Spencer, in a standout performance), her estranged grandma (Tantoo Cardinal), her hilarious cousin Biscuits (Cody Lightning), a lovable shop owner (Graham Greene, running away with the series in his mostly comedic scenes), and eventually her cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs). “Dark Winds’” Zahn McClarnon appears briefly in the critical role of Maya’s dad. Disney+ made only three episodes available for review, and they speed by and feature some great action sequences along with some good and some mediocre special effects. What distinguishes this is how it opens a window into American Indian culture and heritage while telling a brisk, exciting mystery that steers Disney+ to a new horizon of not only more complicated and edgier storytelling but one told from an often overlooked perspective. Details: 3 stars; all five episodes now available on Disney+.

“Criminal Record”: A battle of wits between two detectives ensues after a desperate, anonymous emergency phone call pins the blame of a grisly murder on someone other than the convicted Black man behind bars. That’s the premise of Apple TV+’s polished and perfectly tuned eight-part vehicle that’s far more ambitious than what it sounds like. Series creator Paul Rutman (“Vera”) balances the mystery/thriller aspects with a character-driven story that bristles with point-blank observations about racism and sexism which then turns into a tug of war between two detectives — the up-and-coming biracial Detective Sergeant June Lenker (Cush Jumbo) and veteran Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Hegarty (Peter Capaldi). She kicks it new school, he kicks it old, and it does get personal. It also gets political and uncovers dirty deeds and issues that aren’t always clear cut. “Criminal Record” builds on the tension and offers more than a meticulous procedural as it exposes a legacy of layered coverups while exploring the emotional frailties of these two unlike but smart characters. Both Jumbo and Capaldi give extraordinary performances in a series that digs deep into the complicated home lives of both. “Criminal Record” deserves to become a hit and here’s hoping for a second season. Details: 3½; first two episodes drop Jan. 10 with a new episode following every week through Feb. 21.

“Monsieur Spade”: Everyone needs a change of scenery now and then. Dashiell Hammett’s iconic San Francisco-based detective Sam Spade gets that and a bunch of nun corpses in this intricate six-part brain-twister from AMC. In the opening episode, Spade, portrayed with a vintage wink and deadpan wit by Clive Owen, visits and winds up living in the pastoral French town of Bozouls, where he retires, gets married and then becomes a widower. Flash forward to 1963 and Spade finds a serpentine new case that involves blackmail, a smarty-pants teen, multiple murders, the Algerian War and duplicitous people with plenty of secrets. Created by Scott Frank and Tom Fontana, “Monsieur Spade” gives anyone mourning the loss of HBO’s “Perry Mason” series a reason to rejoice. The crisp one-liners are delivered with vigor and go down with the snap of a shot of whiskey. Executive produced by Barry Levinson and Owen, “Monsieur Spade” is rich in period details and is really the equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle, one with numerous pieces that might seem all but impossible to connect before Spade sweeps in and fits them into place with just the right amount of aplomb and snark. Get ready to give those brain cells a workout and witness Alfre Woodard steal the show in its final episode. Details: 3½ stars; first episode drops Jan. 14 on AMC, AMC+ and Acorn TV, with a new episode dropping every Sunday until Feb. 18.

“The Brothers Sun”: At eight episodes, this violent Netflix martial arts comedy starring Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh could have learned a lesson from co-star Justin Chien’s abs: get rid of the fat!. At times, Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk’s series goes slack and switches tones too abruptly while firing off jokes that go splat. That doesn’t kill the joy of “Brothers Sun” — in which various triads from Taipei jockey for power in Los Angeles — but it does weigh things down at times. Yeoh’s and Chien’s confident presence props up “Sun” whenever it veers off course. Both juggle the incredible martial arts sequence (the best one keyed off the 1985 cult classic “Gymkata” in Episode 7) and the comedic/dramatic shifts with skill. Yeoh plays Mama Sun, who is estranged from the father of her older son Charles (Chien) — a handsome killer — and her younger son Bruce (Sam Song Li) — a confrontation-adverse improv wannabe. After an attempt on dad’s life lands him in the hospital, Charles journeys to L.A. to protect his family. “The Brothers Sun” does ramble on, but when Yeoh and Chien bust out those fancy moves and gather around the family table with Song Li, its pure action/drama magic. Details: 2½ stars; now on Netflix.

“Solo Leveling”: Netflix isn’t the only streamer hitting it out of the anime park. Crunchyroll is a big beacon for fans, and the gory “Solo Leveling” proves why, an ace meld of mythological elements and outlandish action sequences. It’s a mashup of “Stargate” and a superhero series as “hunters” stalk and take down evil entities itching to get out of their alternate dimension. It’s adapted from a Korean web novel, and after watching two episodes (one drops weekly on the streamer), I’m certainly hooked. Details: 3 stars, available on Crunchyroll.

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected].