HBO’s new crime series True Detective is a show that can get away with resting on the laurels afforded it by its star power and simple enough premise. A cop show starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on HBO would probably be well-received even if the two stars were playing their characters from Dazed & Confused and Money Train, respectively. The pitch, alternating season-long mystery arcs that will bring in a new cast of characters and stories every season, is sort of a highbrow take on what American Horror Story is doing, and leaves open to debate fantasy future cop pairings (Javier Bardem and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as half-brothers solving a missing persons case in a border town!).
Conceived by Sin Nombre director and writer Cary Joji Fukunaga and novelist Nic Pizzolatto, the latter of whom’s sole foray into television is the US remake of The Killing, True Detective is smart enough to prey on your assumptions, slowly presenting itself as something more sinister, disturbing and affecting than your average police procedural. It’s a worthy feat accomplished by superb writing, idiosyncratic characterization, and some truly noble performances. With just three episodes in the can, I’m willing to call True Detective the best produced series on television right now.
Set in Louisiana, the narrative is split between two distinct time periods. As a framing device, we seamlessly drift back and forth from 2012, where we watch detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) separately questioned about the murder of Dora Lange, a case they collectively cracked back in 1995, where we see drastically different versions of the detectives working the case. The device of having someone in the interrogation box to bookend a larger story isn’t a new one by any means, but the seventeen years between the settings allows Cohle and Hart to change and grow so much as to almost feel like entirely new characters. Slowly, details emerge in the present that color what we see in the past, with reveals ranging from subtle (a character absently rubbing his naked ring finger) to necessary (plain fill-in-the-blanks exposition about the passing years). The respective actors’ changed appearance is expected, but the smart cinematography–framing Hart with a bright precinct room behind him and Cohle with the dingy, brown wall he’s practically blending into–raises the bar.
The actual murder investigation begins when the body of a prostitute is found with symbols and twig sculptures, and a deer antler crown, a striking visual that, along with the show’s stylized opening credits, loosely calls to mind NBC’s Hannibal. Cohle is an Alaskan transplant by way of Texas, and filtered through the complex prism of McConaughey’s unique brand of southern charm, is, from his first frame, the most watchable character on television. His dark, smoldering eyes that eventually become crystalline, hollow shells in the present day sequences, are the focal point of so many scenes and they’re the secret to some of the show’s larger themes. Sketching dead bodies in his giant folio and spewing “$10 words” about ritualism, it’d be easy to lump Cohle into Community‘s Abed Nadir facsimile of television’s current obsession with supernaturally intelligent sleuths. Perhaps if this were a one man show, it might devolve into such, but it is a buddy cop drama, if such a thing exists, and Cohle is given the finest foil in Harrelson’s Detective Hart.
Where Cohle is burnt out, highly intellectual, nearly nihilistic and casually dismissive of spirituality, Hart is put-together, functionally clever, a self-identified family man, and a devout Christian. Were this show played for laughs, their Hart and Cohle’s diametric opposition would be mined for comedic friction, but presented as the twin protagonists of this desolate, southern-fried film noir, their partnership is layered and fascinating. The two men work well together in spite of their differences, with complimentary strengths and weaknesses. Pilot episode “The Long Bright Dark” spends as much time setting up their partnership (and its as yet unseen eventual dissolution years later) as it does the main plot. Their characterization is delineated in equal measure between smartly crafted dialogue colored with homespun colloquialisms (the type of turn of phrase that could only have come from the mind of a man who writes mystery novels for a living) and the dichotomy of how each man speaks of the other in the present day interrogation scenes. Hart refers to Cohle with a fondness and a respect, which is perhaps honesty, perhaps just the nostalgia that replaces contempt given the sufficient passage of time. All of his criticisms about Cohle are really backdoor brags about what he believes to be his own strengths, all stemming from his dedication to his family.
The second episode, “Seeing Things” illuminates the hypocritical nature of Hart, his infidelity, and the sickening arm’s length he seems to keep from the family he professes to love so much. In Cohle’s recollections, he seems to have a lot less to say of Hart specifically, but tends to jaw on about his philosophical views on society and existence as a whole–all inferences that are attributable to Hart. The Cohle we first meet is a man whose sole unsolvable mystery is himself, and though he protests too much with his views of the townspeople and his superiors and pretty much everyone else he encounters, it’s clear the loss of his own family and past trauma hound him. The Cohle of 2012 has since solved that mystery, and is so utterly content in who he is that he has clearly let himself go; a Lone Star-swilling Hillbilly Fu Manchu letting the days pass by. Hart, on the other hand, goes from being a conflicted, self-deluded patriarch to a man who holds even stronger to his projected surface in the present. The wounded intricacies of their relationship are as thrilling and suspenseful as the chase for the killer.
This Sunday’s episode, “The Locked Room,” really hones into focus the heart of the series. As the investigation begins to stall and the case is soon to be handed off to a task force created to combat “anti-Christian” crimes, the pair follow a lead that takes them to guest star Shea Whigam’s revival tent church, a setting at once required by the plot, but also a mere backdrop for Cohle’s vitriolic observations about religion. In this episode, we see more and more plainly that Cohle sees life as a sad thing that happens, and that everything else is a tragic pretense we create ourselves, while Hart, perpetually frustrated by Cohle’s insinuations, begins to realize he has no views on life at all.
Hart obsesses over the structure of family because it keeps him safe from the doubts Cohle has long since reconciled as part of who he is. When Cohle speaks of the promise of an afterlife as a cruel dessert for people looking to make something special out of death, we realize he is also talking about the audience and their desperate need to see a murder solved to reestablish the status quo. The ironic nod is further strengthened when Cohle tries on spiritual indignation like an ill-fitting coat to crack a hapless suspect in interrogation. In True Detective, Life is about looking for answers to a question no one asked, and discovering there are none.
Sunday’s cliffhanger finally reveals the alleged killer we’ve been seeking, and promises next week’s episode to be the barn-burning climax we’ve waited for. But it’s the existential dread that lies in wait for us in the season’s back half that is considerably more exciting. True Detective is a well-executed procedural that uses two actors at the peak of their talents, propelled by compelling and contrasting characters. Nic Pizzolatto and company have managed to craft a detective show about detective shows, at once telling a rugged, unique crime tale, and fusing together two disparate modern TV tropes for something greater than either. By himself, Woody Harrelson’s Detective Hart would be another in a long line of Walter White protagonists, letting ends justify means, and likewise, Matthew McConaughey’s Cohle would just be a drawl inflected Moffat Sherlock, cracking cases and dissecting people with ease. Together, it’s as if Jacob and The Man In Black from Lost were forced on a ride-along, a modern mystery series that forces us to solve the case of our own existence.
Coupled with great, period-and-setting-appropriate music from T. Bone Burnett, fantastic cinematography and some great supporting turns from Michelle Monaghan (as Hart’s sincere and nuanced wife) and Kevin Dunn (as their put-upon superior officer) True Detective is the show to beat this season.
True Detective airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.