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.