There's never been anything quite like HBO's True Detective on American television. This isn't episodic TV. Rather, more so than anything else ever on domestic small screens, it's a film (or perhaps a novel) cut into eight one-hour slabs seemingly for portion control rather than actual narrative purpose. Yes, the vehicle is a simple murder tale not too far afield from what we've seen on The Killing, Wallander, or even Law & Order. In its execution though, it's strikingly ambitious and, for the most part, successful.
This is all to the credit of director Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre), writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of The Lake, Animal Kingdom) and True Detective's lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Everyone involved seems willing to let the story unspool at its own pace, concentrating on each scene and shot with a level of care that might be seen in a David Fincher film — outpacing Boardwalk Empire and even The Sopranos in visual richness.
In fact, as a cinematic epic made for television, True Detective's closest analog is probably the BBC's jumbled, depressing, but alternately engrossing Red Riding trilogy — a trio of decade-spanning, gray-as-ash thriller films from 2009. But, where True Detective soars (and Red Riding stumbles) is in its granular focus on its two leads, investigators Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Heart (Harrelson).
To get down to brass tacks, True Detective jumps between a series of interviews in 2012 that recount events in 1995 and 2002. It's a thin conceit, but one that still allows the two detectives to efficiently (and sometimes deceptively) narrate their Heart of Darkness journey into a Louisiana bayou filled with drugs, sex, murder, poverty, occultism, and horror.
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The two are an unlikely pair. Cohle is a hyperintellectual, grieving obsessive and drug addict with a jet-black past spouting existentialist musings whenever possible, while Heart is a more traditional creature with his own set of conventional domestic issues. Each of them is a true, realized character study. In this, Harrelson and McConaughey have never been better.
The murder is, of course, most foul, but it is the messy lives of these two investigators that take center stage, providing the series' greatest strength and weakness. Each of Cohle and Heart's little twitches fill up the hour well, though some of the dialog runs toward artificial My Dinner With Andre territory. If you can get past McConaughey's alternately brilliant and heavy philosophizing, you'll be in great shape.
There are few other holes in True Detective, the simultaneously bland and awkward Michelle Monaghan as Heart's wife being the only mentionable instance. For the most part, this is a slow, excellent ride into the night. Be forewarned though, there is almost no light or hope here — it may be the grimmest thing to ever appear on television. For all the darkness, though, True Detective is a dazzling example of what can be done on the small screen. Just be glad Girls comes on at 10pm to wash away all that throbbing dread.
True Detective premieres Sunday, January 12th at 9pm on HBO.