The last decade or so of TV drama has been defined by its love affair with dark, brooding men combatting their inner psychological torments. In True Detective, HBO turns this love affair into true monogamy, exploring the odd couple of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
The show follows Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson), two recently paired detectives investigating a possibly satanic serial killer in rural Louisiana. The show is presented in two modes: One follows the detectives during their investigation in 1995, while the second sees them being separately interviewed by other detectives in 2012 after the long-closed case mysteriously reopens.
The show’s premiere introduces the series while unapologetically not advancing the plot: The detectives make few inroads into the case, and the drama is kept on a small scale. Instead, writer Nic Pizzolatto is far more interested in the inner characters of Cohle and Hart, as well as their interplay.
McConaughey’s Cohle is solitary and philosophical to a fault. The show finds him recently transferred from Texas with no family or friends and barely a possession to his name. What he does bring to the table is a bleak outlook and a meticulous approach to detective work that is seen as strange even by his colleagues. The recently hot McConaughey—“hot” in the sense of a hot streak, in addition to his visual appeal—comes from award-worthy outings such as Dallas Buyers Club and brings his full talents to bear in True Detective. His dead eyes speak of a man who cares for nothing but his work, and even that very impersonally. His body language and delivery make Pizzolatto’s spurts of philosophy-heavy dialogue sound like they actually come from a dark and broken man as opposed to a depressed high school pseudo-philosopher.
Harrelson has some of his thunder stolen by McConaughey, but is more than capable of maintaining his own. Unlike Cohle, Hart is a family man and friendly with his peers. He is straightforward and practical in his detective work in contrast with Cohle’s conjecturing and analytical thought process. Yet Hart is consistently fascinated by the enigmatic Cohle, frequently trying to probe his partner whom he knows so little about. In fact, it is so far impossible to discuss Hart without discussing Cohle, but not the other way around. This robs Harrelson of a real chance to shine, but without him the show would be far less palatable in its descent into Pizzolatto’s random philosophical musings.
Together, McConaughey and Harrelson have chemistry and make for a good on-screen fit with the desolate Louisiana landscape. The show was filmed on location, and the creators have found all of the best empty grass fields, swamps, and cheap housing that’s fit to put on TV. As Cohle says in the premiere, the town resembles “someone’s fading memory of a town.” While both Hart and the viewer laugh it off initially as another of Cohle/Pizzolatto’s weird and meaningless statements, neither can help but be put off by the eeriness and emptiness of the setting.
What the first episode lacks in action and suspense it makes up for in part with its characterization and atmosphere. Though not particularly compelling by itself, the premiere shows promise a good eight-episode run. That’s all the time Pizzolatto has to develop these detectives; True Detective is set to mimic the American Horror Story style, with each new season featuring a different plot and cast of characters. While Horror Story maintained most of its cast from season to season, McConaughey and Harrelson’s film commitments will likely send them packing after their first. So far they look to be making the best of the short time they have together.