TV Review: ‘True Detective’

true detective HBO Finale Review

Beyond the McConaughey-Harrelson pairing, HBO cop drama offers an intoxicating, multi-layered mystery

At first blush, “True Detective” looks like another brooding cable cop drama, distinguished primarily by the undeniable casting coup of pairing a suddenly red-hot Matthew McConaughey (and who saw that one coming?) and Woody Harrelson. It doesn’t take long, though, for this hypnotic series to begin assuming a life of its own, wrapped in a multipronged mystery and featuring one of more unconventional protagonists to walk the beat in a while. Rich and absorbing, this eight-part drama quickly vaults into elite company, offering a singular voice that’s unlike almost anything else on TV.

That would come from writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who collaborated on all the episodes. They have woven a story that leaps between 2012 and 1995, but the narrative is actually denser than that, delicately dropping references to past events before we see them unfolding.

Harrelson’s Det. Martin Hart, a family man with issues, and McConaughey’s Rust Cohle — an enigmatic figure, brilliant but prone to visions, nihilistic thoughts and a haunted stare — have been partners for three months when we meet them in 1995. But the story opens with the two being interviewed by detectives (Michael Potts, Tory Kittles) in 2012, a decade after their acrimonious split for reasons unknown.

Ostensibly, the two present-day detectives are probing a grisly, ritualistic murder that Hart and Cohle investigated, and presumably solved, nearly 20 years ago. Yet questions of what happened then are augmented by two other riddles: what eventually drove the mismatched duo apart; and why the cops are so interested in the details of this old case, and how it might relate to a new killing.

It doesn’t help that Hart’s elder version is puffed out and retired from the force, while Cohle’s now sports a wild hairdo and demands a six-pack of beer (nothing fancy, please) before he’ll finish the interview because, well, it’s past noon, and Thursdays, that’s when he starts getting his load on.

Although there are some fine players on the periphery — including Michelle Monaghan as Hart’s wife and Kevin Dunn as their boss — this largely plays as a two-character piece, and Harrelson and McConaughey are both at their best. (Given the number of eccentrics the former has played, it’s also interesting to think about how the show would look if the roles were reversed, since either guy would be almost equally well suited to the other’s part.)

Shot in Louisiana and oozing atmosphere, the show moves slowly, but there’s seldom a wasted scene or moment. And as well-trodden as the cop drama is on TV, the hopscotching timeline and casting have managed to make the whole exercise feel fresh, or at least put a distinct premium-TV stamp on it.

In some respects, “True Detective” approximates the feel of some of the best short-order British crime dramas, albeit with a distinctly American twang. And whether the series can maintain the quality of its initial flurry of episodes, so far, anyway, its aim is certainly true.

TV Review: 'True Detective'

(Series; HBO, Sun. Jan. 12, 9 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in Louisiana by HBO.

Crew

Executive producers, Nic Pizzolatto, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Scott Stephens, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Richard Brown, Steve Golin; director, Fukunaga; writer, Pizzolatto; camera, Adam Arkapaw; production designer, Alex DiGerlando; editors, Alex Hall, Affonso Goncalves; music, T Bone Burnett; casting, Meagan Lewis, Alexa L. Fogel. 60 MIN.

Cast

Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles, Kevin Dunn

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  1. Who does this SH*T!!! Casting Vince Vaughn as a bad guy was dumbest thing they could ever do. Season 2 of true detective is not worth watching.

  2. Jennifer Hess says:

    When a writer cannot write any female characters worth LISTENING to – he’s not a good writer. Period.
    When a director films more female naked body parts than female faces – he’s not a good director. Period.

    This show cannot seem to conjure up one female character that isn’t a victim, a hooker, a sex toy, a coffee getter, a leg spreader or a beaten down coughing up blood pathetic throw away. When there are images of women’s naked body parts just in the opening credits – that’s NOT art and it’s not ground-breaking.

    It’s good, old-fashioned misogyny wrapped up in a creepy, philosophical, detective story. MORE of the SAME.

    It would be nice if a professional Reviewer/Critic could notice this and point it out once in a while because then you would actually be DOING YOUR JOB. Praise all you want but don’t give 1/2 the story. Elevate all art with your opinion please. Ask for something better. Females do make up 1/2 the population ya know. You think this would fly if 1/2 of senior management of all media outlets, studios, networks etc. were women????

  3. TJF says:

    I COULDN’T STOP WATCHING !!

    Brilliant, riveting story,,moody, crazy and yet at times, very witty,always endlessly fascinating…an unusual character study of two detectives and the environment that influenced them, in backwoods Louisana.

    A dark, undulating drama that you won’t be able to stop watching ! And McConaughey’s character, WOW….he is a stellar actor….but he REALLY outdid himself this time. And Harrelson is ALWAYS excellent. What a pair. Its like putting DeNiro and Pacino together and watch them jump off the screen.

    I am a huge TV buff, especially cop dramas, and in the description of this show, its sounds very ordinary….but trust me, in the hands of these two highly skilled actors and genius writers, it has been elevated to a high art, of great subtlety, where, around every corner, you will say….. I didn’t see THAT one coming!

    The pilot episode was an hour, that seemed to fly by in five minutes.

  4. FYI: The Martin Hart role was actually given to McConaughey, but he said he wanted to play the other character instead and so they switched it up!

  5. Anne Taylor says:

    Can’t wait! We are very excited to watch this!

  6. racy says:

    I am looking forward to watching this show. If it has Matthew McConaughey in it, we know it will be great. He never does a bad job.

    • Roy Munson says:

      Seriously? Are we thinking of the same Matthew McConaughey?

      • missioncope says:

        Never is an exaggeration, but watch Frailty, KILLER JOE, and Dallas Buyer’s Club and you’ll understand his excitement. He was really good in Paperboy too.

  7. Chris Darling says:

    I have read the scripts by Nic Pizzolatto and they are simply stunning. There is a huge, red circle around Jan. 12 on my calendar.

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