The trick to appreciating True Detective is understanding that it’s being sold as something quite different from what it actually is. The show promoted in HBO’s splashy ads and trailers is a dark, pulpy thriller—one that will presumably have twists and turns aplenty as lead actors Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey face off with bad guys. But True Detective turns out to be an unwieldy contraption built out of spare parts from Justified, Hannibal, and Michael Mann’s complete filmography. There are occasional thrills, but they’re subordinate to the philosophical musing.
This can prove enervating in the series’ early going. True Detective is taking the American Horror Story series-of-miniseries model and applying it to the crime genre, meaning that each season will follow one new crime story with a brand new cast of characters. But as has been the case with other “one case per season” shows—like The Killing and The Bridge—the storytelling simply turns into a very drawn-out version of something one might see on a CBS procedural. Methodical to a fault, True Detective spends a lot of time following Harrelson and McConaughey’s characters as they go from one lead to another, slowly tracking down a killer who has killed at least one young woman in a brutally ritualistic fashion. At times, particularly in the first couple of episodes, this can seem incredibly ponderous, straining for meaning it can’t achieve.
After a while, one thing becomes clear: The case, such as it is, isn’t the point. Creator Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist who’s written all eight episodes of the first season, is using a dark mystery to tell a story about masculinity—its meaning, its rituals, and its place in a world that has less and less time for its hypocrisies and bullshit. The story could have sold copies of the pulp magazine that bore the same name as the show. But at the same time, Pizzolatto is crafting a story about the weight of this sort of investigation; the way that staring at the evils human beings are capable of for too long can leave scars deep down in the psyche. Often, the big, thrilling events that might be the centerpiece of another cop show—a shootout, say—are shunted off to the side of a story or elided entirely in favor of more prosaic pursuits, like narrowing down a lead, or driving around in a police cruiser and talking about the meaning of life.
Pizzolatto’s smartest choice is to filter the story through several layers. The framing device for the story is that the characters are called in to discuss this particular case—the files were destroyed in a hurricane—in 2012, meaning they have to rely on shaky memories of the ’90s. Once he’s fully established this device, Pizzolatto has fun with the notion of the future interrogating the past, drawing out questions of how the characters got from point A to what appears to be point Z, given how hollowed-out they are. There are moments when the narration in the future works at deliberate cross-purposes to the story in the past, creating narrative tension that ebbs but never entirely disappears.
Not everything Pizzolatto tries works. There’s a definite sense in some episodes that the writer is simply throwing everything he has at the wall and seeing what sticks; and the questions raised about the nature of masculinity are the sort that TV has been interrogating endlessly since the days of Andy Sipowicz, thank you very much. Particularly in early episodes, there’s a sense that this is something like Homicide: Life On The Street’s pulpier cousin, yet it refuses to go full-pulp and simply give in to thrill-a-minute storytelling, which leaves both halves of the series’ conception feeling threadbare. It’s fine to do a story like this and focus on the philosophical, rather than the physical, but the philosophical concerns need be more original and pressing than they are here. At times, there’s a sense of the late-night, dorm-room rap session to the show—the characters talk about the existence of God or the role of a man while their cars glide through the night and foreboding music handpicked by T. Bone Burnett burbles on the soundtrack.
Yet True Detective has so many aces in the hole that even when it tests the viewer, it comes out on the winning side. Chief among those aces are Harrelson and McConaughey, who are proof positive that 90 percent of a good TV show is casting. McConaughey, in particular, is riveting as raw nerve Rust Cohle, a guy whose unorthodox thoughts and troubled history make him an uneasy fit in the show’s Louisiana setting. Harrelson’s Martin Hart is a character who stays very much inside the box, but both the show and Harrelson make that into a strength as it picks at his frayed edges. Both McConaughey and Harrelson are playing slightly against type, and it’s clear how much both actors enjoy getting to do something different. The scenes where the two of them simply sit and talk are consistently involving. The cast also boasts Michelle Monaghan as Martin’s wife, and while her role is more thankless, she invests it with spirit.
Finally, the series features the direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga, who most recently directed a thrilling feature adaptation of Jane Eyre. Fukunaga’s work matches the actors’ performances beat for beat, creating a degraded, terrifying environment for them to unravel in, while also boosting the weaker portions of Pizzolatto’s scripts by layering in the swampy mood. In the series’ fourth episode—the best HBO sent out to critics—there’s a long tracking shot that’s one of the most impressive technical achievements in TV direction history, yet it calls so little attention to itself that it’s easy to miss it happening, even as it unfolds around the viewer. Fukunaga proves to be the flavor that ties this stew together, and his work makes True Detective sing, instead of collapsing into a pile of dark drama clichés.
The world didn’t really need another series about desperate men in desperate times turning to desperate measures, but the format of True Detective creates anticipation for everything to come. The series can be ponderous and ever so slightly banal, but it’s also sure-footed and thoughtful when it counts. And in its top-notch talent, it creates a great template HBO and Pizzolatto can build on, not only in the back half of this season but also in the years to come. True Detective might be finding itself in the first half of its first season, but few processes of discovery are so enthralling to watch.
Created by: Nic Pizzolatto
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
Format: Hour-long crime drama
Four episodes watched for review