The first season of HBO’s terrific crime series True Detective posited that time is a flat circle, and Season 3 demonstrates that.

After faltering in its sophomore year, True Detective is back to form — largely by retracing many of the same paths of the premiere season. And while television do-overs are typically a recipe for disaster, this reiteration may actually top the original.

That’s no mean feat, given the brilliant performances in the first by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives haunted by the grisly murder of children.

But Season 3 is unafraid of revisiting the themes of the first. If anything, it reinforces the underlying message of the original — that the demons of human nature cannot be escaped, only challenged when they resurface. This current season of True Detective foregoes the often-florid language and stereotyped women that hampered the first, instead anchoring it real-world characters that are more relatable and socioeconomic tensions that still exist today — even though the crimes occurred more than three decades ago.

The new story returns viewers to the South, where partners Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) catch a case involving two children who disappeared on a bike ride. The boy’s body is found is found quickly; the missing girl drives the bulk of the series.

Veterans of the series will immediately recognize the similarities:

  • The story hopscotches through time. Just as detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) have to reopen and re-investigate a crime they thought was closed, Hays and West not only have to re-investigate a crime, they must re-investigate the reinvestigation.
  • Social tension brews between cops. Cohle and Hart often clashed over faith and family values. Hays and West, while both being Vietnam War vets, find themselves at odds over much more tangible differences, such as race, economic differences, even duties while in service.
  • Location is a character in itself. Season 1 was rooted deeply in the bayou backwoods of Louisiana (creator Nic Pizzolatto admitted that the sounds of crickets and frogs were so prevalent he gave up trying to dim them in sound mixing, letting it create an aural tension to the show). Season 3 is just as entrenched in the South, only this time Arkansas. The show was shot in Arkansas, and everything from the bars to cafes to the Devil’s Den park where the children disappeared, are actual spots in northwest Arkansas. Even many extras in the show are Arkansas residents, not actors

Despite the similarities, this season has a couple advantages over its predecessor, the primary one being Ali. The Oscar-winning actor, who could become a two-time winner with his recent Supporting Actor nomination for Green Book, is a gravel-voiced wonder. Because he populates three separate time frames in the series — as a young loner detective, a middle-aged cop with a wife and kids, and finally a retired senior battling dementia — Ali seems to inhabit three wholly different people.

Also, Season 3 makes better use of the hardscrabble poor that populate the landscape. While both utilize overly-ambitious small-time politicians, season three better captures the paranoia and tension that paralyzes a small town unaccustomed to violence, particularly involving children. A scene in episode three of an empty school bus making worthless stops beautifully underscores the series’ brooding tension.

What the third installment still hasn’t captured (besides the first True Detective‘s novelty, of course), is the cinematography of the first season. While Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw oversees the camera work of the entire series, season three hasn’t had anything yet approaching the six-minute tracking shot in an episode of season one that established the show as a visual stunner (and earned Arkapaw an Emmy nomination). But opportunities will surely abound as the show has rediscovered its footing.

Like The Sopranos and The Wire, True Detective‘s resurgence has established HBO again as a home for riveting murder dramas. Crime may not pay, but it sure makes for good TV.