Created and scripted by one writer, novelist Nic Pizzolatto, with all eight episodes of its first season directed by a single filmmaker, Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”), HBO’s new series “True Detective” has as much in common with a high profile movie as a television drama in terms of concentrated creative vision. And it has for its leads two honest-to-god movie stars — Woody Harrelson, who began his career on the small screen, and Matthew McConaughey, in his first regular TV role — as Martin Hart and Rust Cohle, a pair of detectives tracking down a serial killer in south Louisiana. The series, which premieres this Sunday, January 12 at 10pm, will run as a self-contained story, with any future seasons starting over with new characters and a new but thematically similar plot, anthology-style.
“True Detective” is, in other words, filled with all kinds of overt signals of quality, but halfway through its first episode I wondered, with a sinking heart, if it wasn’t what Grantland’s Andy Greenwald has described as “prestige simulacra” — those shows that have the grit, grown-up themes and gradual pacing of TV’s most respected dramas without any of the qualities that make them so good.
The series begins with apparent self-seriousness — the first episode carries the title “The Long Bright Dark” — and while at its heart is a mystery that’s introduced by way of a ritualistic murder, that scaffolding props up a lot of early scenes of grandiloquent discussion and voiceover, much of it from McConaughey’s Cohle, who does not come across as the kind of guy who’d be fun at parties. “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” he dolefully explains of humanity to Hart, who’s not especially pleased with the new partner he’s been saddled with, adding when asked about why he doesn’t just off himself that “I lack the constitution for suicide.” They travel out to the scene of the crime, which, while striking, also resembles the many other gruesomely staged death scenes that regularly pepper primetime programming.
Cohle is a strange one, a humorless type living alone in an unfurnished studio and sleeping on a mattress on the ground underneath a crucifix (though he’s not religious) and next to a pile of criminology books — but he seems to be very good at what he does, a yin to the more traditional Hart’s yang. The two initially look like the latest variation on a typical crime-solving screen pairing, the brilliant but eccentric obsessive with no life and the more stable, less imaginative one who’s better with people, fellow cops and family.
But like the rest of “True Detective,” those initial impressions turn out to be not just oversimplifications but deceptive. By the end of the three episodes I was given, Hart wasn’t looking like any more reliable a subject than his partner, and Cohle’s behavior was a lot more understandable than offputting. And by that point “True Detective” was a far more interesting, more hallucinatory and better show that’s as much about storytelling as about a monstrous figure lurking out in the cane fields who killed a girl named Dora Lange, blindfolded her and left her out in the open with a crown of antlers on her head.
“You know the job — you’re looking for narrative,” Hart explains. “Interrogate witnesses, parse a little evidence, establish a timeline, build a story, day after day.” The series demands we do the same in figuring out Cohle and Hart, what they think of each other and what happened to them by straddling two points in time — 1995, when the first murder is being investigated, and 2012, when the men, both older and very different, are being interrogated by two detectives played by Tory Kittles and Michael Potts about everything that happened because a recent development has suggested the case might not be closed.
How Cohle goes from clean-cut and dead-eyed in 1995 to a bedraggled but amused alcoholic in 2012, why Hart’s no longer a cop and what happened between them become as pressing as the identity and motive of the murderer. More so, really, as the case proceeds with the woozy deliberateness of a drunk trying to walk a straight line, sending the detectives out to burnt out church in the middle of nowhere or the parking lots of boarded-up strip malls.
Their process is intercut with scenes from 2012, but also more and more scenes of the two men in their off hours, as we meet Hart’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) and what Cohle does during his bouts of insomnia. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s (“Top of the Lake,” “Animal Kingdom”) camera glides after the men and occasionally holding on details that they don’t, like an observer with an opinion of its own.
Pizzolatto’s only other screen credits are for two episodes of “The Killing,” but if there’s another show “True Detective” brings to my mind, it would be “Carnivàle,” with its Depression-wrecked American landscape and signs and portents of apocalypse around every corner. There’s no magic in “True Detective,” at least not as far as I’ve seen, but there are traces of mysticism as well as literal visions unfolding spectacularly in the sky, the phantasmagoric qualities of the past contrasting with the florescent-lit realities of the present.
The roles play to Harrelson and McConaughey’s strengths, the former’s more obviously than the latter, though Cohle’s the more intriguing character, McConaughey’s slightly drawn handsomeness contrasting with how hollowed out the character seems, the kind of person who has to remember how to make conversation, for whom its an effort.
Is “True Detective” the next great TV drama? Three episodes is too little to tell, but it has all the elements to e something eerie and excellent, starting with a familiar formula and then circling out further and further into unusual territory until it seems like something thrillingly uncertain, not far from home and yet like no place you’ve ever seen.