Monday 14
True Detective
9pm, Sky Atlantic
As it returns for a third outing, the phantom of True Detective’s first series still hangs heavy over the show.
When it appeared in 2014, the southern fried gothic cop drama became an instant phenomenon, thanks to a mix of no expectations; a weird, inward tone from writer Nic Pizzolatto; swamping Louisiana atmosphere; and, above all, inspired casting, slamming together Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, both at the top of their strange games, as existentialist cop Rust Cohle and his reluctant, more meat-headed partner, Marty Hart.
Together, they undercut and elevated writer Pizzolatto’s consciously, ornately, sometimes bloatedly dark script. When Chole’s purple dialogue grew too ridiculously portentous, they supplied the spark that winked, Look, we know this is some doomy bullshit. But we believe it, too.
Flawed but fully mesmerising, it was the brilliance of the original series that did for True Detective II in 2015. Always intended as an anthology, Pizzolatto’s follow-up featured new characters, a new story, a new town, with Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn playing LA cop and gangster. The series retained the original’s blanket-of-doom noir worldview like a trademark, but couldn't make it sizzle, and left many viewers cold.
If it was brave for the second series to try something different, the gamble True Detective III takes is in referencing the famous first series to the point the echoes grow deafening. Once again, it’s set against bare places in a southern state, and, once again, the unreliable narrative fractures across several time frames, as cops investigate a gruesome mystery, then chew it over again years later.
This time, the eight-part story flashes and loops between 2015, 1990, and 1980. Back then, Arkansas detectives Wayne Hays and Roland West (the excellent Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff), were called when two local kids went missing. One grey November afternoon – “it was the day Steve McQueen died,” runs the macho poetic dialogue – a brother and sister aged around 10 and 12 went out on their bikes, and never came home again.
Ten years later, the 1990 version of Hays is asked to go over his old work when new information comes to light. Meanwhile, his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a teacher he met during the investigation, is about to publish a Capote-style nonfiction novel about the original case. The book will make her name, but the new revelations create tension.
Meanwhile, in 2015, we find Hays grown hazy, an elderly man in the early stages of dementia, examining events again when a TV crew asks to interview him for a new documentary.
In the early episodes I’ve seen, as the plot hints at hidden clues and larger mysteries waiting to unfold, but taking a maddening time to begin doing it, Ali is the main draw. Playing Hays with an impassive but increasingly magnetic slow-burn quality, he’s terrific across all three time zones.
Almost unreadable, Ali still suggests Hays’s inner life. Before becoming a cop, Hays served in Vietnam, in a semi-mythic role as a long-range reconnaissance man, scouting alone deep behind enemy lines. The older Hays’s dementia amplifies the show’s befuddled sense of time. But time always seems slippery, sticky terrain for Hays. At moments, when the young cop stares out over foggy Arkansas fields and rivers, you sense he’s still seeing Vietnamese landscapes.
But Ali’s performance is in danger of being drowned under the show’s constant hankering after the original True Detective. As nudges accumulate – ritualistic killings, witchy-little occult objects made of straw, even mention of the angled spiral symbol that became series one’s recurring motif – this outing threatens to become a True Detective tribute act. Still, there’s more going on than in the average cop opera. It’s worth sticking around the swamplands to see where it all winds up.
Sunday January 13
The Eyes Of Orson Welles
9pm, BBC Four
He’s best known, of course, for his magnificent, mutilated legacy of films, but in another, possibly less interesting, life, Orson Welles could easily have become a great illustrator and painter. From childhood until death, he drew, sketched, painted and scribbled incessantly, sometimes working on ideas for his theatre and movie productions, sometimes on commission, but mostly, it seems, just for the sheer, restless love of making things. In this impassioned and idiosyncratic documentary, director Mark Cousins explores Welles’s drawings and paintings (some being seen publicly for the first time) as a way of framing and exploring the great man’s life. Cousins’s spinningly breathless style is an acquired taste – you’ll either be charmed or irritated – but his passion is sincere, and it’s a fascinating subject. If nothing else, the film makes you pine for a coffee table book of Welles’s artwork.
Tuesday 15
The River
10.35pm, Channel 4
Another day, and another new crime import pops up on Walter Presents. Hailing from Norway, this latest is a return to the chilly kingdom of Scandi-noir, set around a small village deep within the Arctic Circle, near the border with Russia. It’s a zone where the Cold War never thawed, and NATO troops are doing winter exercises in the long dark nights. Against this wintry, wooded backdrop, a grisly mystery begins to unfold: while out playing by the river, a small girl finds a dismembered hand. The local cop, Thomas (Espen Reboli Bjerke) begins investigating, but the case quickly assumes a different dimension when the little girl who made the discovery goes missing. As he begins to hunt for her, Thomas faces curious resistance from his own bosses. To add spice, the series comes billed as being “based on true events…”
Wednesday 16
Revolution In Ruins: The Hugo Chavez Story 9pm, BBC Two Featuring input from many who knew him, this documentary explores the late Venezuelan leader’s rise to power, his 14-year presidency, and its lingering, messy, tragic aftermath. While Chavez and Donald Trump might seem like wildly divergent politicians, the film positions Chavez as a precursor to the wave of populist leaders to have emerged in recent years: Chávez bypassed traditional media, to speak directly to the people through his weekly live TV show. When he swept to power in 1998, he promised to use the nation’s vast oil wealth to transform the lives of the poor, with incredible and rapid results in the areas of health and education. But those achievements were short-lived. Today, 90 per cent of families in Venezuela say they do not have enough to eat, while the United Nations predicts that over 5 million people will soon have left the country.
Thursday 17
9pm, BBC Four
In this colourful sequel to her “British History’s Biggest Fibs,” the historian similarly sets out to explore how the accepted story the USA likes to tell about itself is concocted from a mixture of facts, fibs and outright fantasy: rival interpretations of the truth gradually manipulated into shape by whoever was in power at the time, and then further embroidered and mythologised by generations of politicians, writers and protesters. Tonight’s episode, the first of three, examines the American Revolution, a tale of a David-and-Goliath battle of men with high ideals taking on the fusty might of the British Empire, and a keystone ingredient in America’s branding of itself. But how much of that founding story is based on fact? And, more to the point, how many costume changes can one presenter pull off in an hour?

Friday 18
On Bass...Tina Weymouth!
9pm, BBC Four
Following last week’s drum lesson with Stewart Copeland, this is the second of BBC Four’s debatably necessary three-part series on “influential musical instruments.” On the positive side, though, it’s the only show on TV this week being presented by the excellent Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads/ Tom Tom Club legend, and, as such, unmissable. Weymouth walks through the history of the bass in rock and pop, singling out some milestone moments, players, and grooves. Among the figures spotlighted are Paul McCartney, Motown man James Jamerson and Chic’s Bernard Edwards. Meanwhile, there are some bass greats among the contributors, including the Wrecking Crew mainstay Carol Kaye, funk architect Bootsy Collins, former Joy Division/ New Order bassist Peter Hook, Bowie’s latter-day right-hand-woman Gail Ann Dorsey, and Herbie Flowers, the man behind the “Walk On The Wild Side” lick.

Saturday 19
The Secret Life Of Bob Monkhouse
10.20pm, BBC Four
Unless you’re watching the snooker, it’s the usual Saturday night reality entertainment competition washout on TV tonight, but it’s worth noting the repeat of this film on the life and career of the showbiz trooper, originally shown in 2011. Monkhouse was always known for his slippery-as-snakeoil style as a presenter and gag-man, but behind that ritzy façade lay a serious movie buff and devoted pop-culture scholar. Since his death, this other side of the man has come to be more appreciated, and the film throws light on it by examining the vast collection of old film, VHS tapes and memorabilia he collected – many of the TV broadcasts he preserved in his private archive would otherwise have been completely lost. Pals Ronnie Corbett and Barry Cryer and Lenny Henry are among the contributors.