In ‘True Detective: Night Country,’ Jodie Foster gets snowed in by side plots

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey still receive producer credits on “True Detective,” an unintentional reminder this unlikely franchise peaked with its first edition a decade ago. The fourth installment, “True Detective: Night Country,” features a showy (and snowy) role for Jodie Foster, but after a promising start this series too often feels more like a weird variation on “Twin Peaks” than its namesake.

Set in Ennis, a remote Alaska town described as “the end of the world” (an inadvertent echo of “A Murder at the End of the World,” which recently landed on Hulu), the show is filled with eccentric characters who would reside in such a place, and who, thanks to the relatively small community, all seem to possess history with each other.

The story gets set in motion by an inexplicable event at a nearby research facility, in what begins as a missing-persons case and eventually involves what looks like murder. The investigation falls to the local detective, Liz Danvers (Foster), who reunites with a former colleague, Evangeline Navarro (boxer turned actor Kali Reis), to try sorting out what happened.

Danvers isn’t your run-of-the-mill cop, prone as she is to affairs with married guys, drinking a little too much and mouthing off at superiors and subordinates alike. There’s also tension between her and Navarro related to a past murder (one hesitates to call it a “cold case” given the environment), while Navarro experiences eerie visions that suggest a macabre, perhaps even supernatural component underlying these events.

Although the show runs just six episodes, “Night Country” becomes so enmeshed in personal issues involving Danvers and those within her orbit as to bog down the story, in part because the central crime, at least initially, is so tantalizing and mystifying.

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Underscoring how much that balance is a matter of degree, AMC’s new limited series “Monsieur Spade” features a similar combination of detours and subplots around a central murder mystery, and yet proves considerably more satisfying.

In terms of atmosphere, showrunner Issa López capitalizes on the setting and its semi-mystical qualities to make this “True Detective” feel like none of the others, which is mostly a good thing, except for the tired idea that Foster’s character must try to solve the crime while battling demons of her own. The premise ultimately feels a little too out there and “X-Files”-ish for its own good, and while the resolution brings the disparate threads together, it labors to resolve them.

This fourth installment comes five years after season three, which, with the help of Mahershala Ali, nicely rebounded from the weak second effort. The original “True Detective” did establish expectations about star pairings, and putting Foster on the case more than three decades after “The Silence of the Lambs” while teaming her with a relative newcomer in Reis works reasonably well.

Ultimately, though, “True Detective: Night Country” plays like a slog through deep snow before getting around to unlocking its secrets, a too-long journey into night.

“True Detective: Night Country” premieres January 14 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

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