List off all the typical ingredients of the standard crime drama, and “True Detective” seems like a perfectly calculated recipe: two mismatched male detectives trying to solve a gruesome, inexplicable murder in a decrepit southern gothic town. But as the show develops, it becomes clear that HBO’s new anthology series is anything but a clich?sum of its parts. Writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto subverts the centricity of the actual mystery and instead demands a closer examination of the cops’ damaged psyches, revealing demons that slowly unfold to make “True Detective” one of the network’s most intriguing releases of 2014.
Taking on these heavy roles are Woody Harrelson and an affectingly somber Matthew McConaughey, who both double as executive producers. In the first episode, the men encounter a murdered prostitute in the middle of a Louisiana cane field. The show then takes us back and forth on a 17-year timeline as the pair rehashes memories of a similar past case. These flashbacks take their toll on the men – evidenced in their hollowed cheekbone and the circles under their eyes. Each has hefty baggage to bear, and the actors skillfully internalize the effects that years of exposure to grizzly crimes has had on their characters’ bodies and minds.
McConaughey subtly dominates the screen as alcoholic Rust Cohle, who is described in the pilot’s first few minutes as someone who “would pick a fight with the sky if he didn’t like its shade of blue.” He is a sort of off-kilter philosopher – or what a philosopher would become if the blinds were let down around every corner of his conscience, casting shadows across his perception of everything around him. The genial, charismatic charm usually oozing from McConaughey’s every line has all been drained here. Indeed, Cohle is a godless, humorless man – one who thinks the human race should offer itself up for extinction – and watching McConaughey get lost in this twisted psyche is both intriguing and horrifying.
Harrelson’s Marty Hart stands cheerfully in comparison, though his whiskey-laden southern drawl is far from exuberant and his family life is troubled at best. Hart is Cohle’s reluctant audience, recognizing him for his skilled detective work, while begrudgingly listening to his partner’s angst-ridden musings like a frustrated parent to a teenager. If there is comic relief (an element otherwise absent in “True Detective”), this is it: Hart is just as unsettled as we are when Cohle utters lines like, “[Life] is a giant gutter in outer space.” All he wants is to finish work, go home and act like the family man he so desperately wants to become.
Aside from these differences, there is hardly a contrast between Cohle and Hart. They are both the kind of conventional detectives – middle-aged white men with a penchant for smoking cigars and drinking at noon – anyone would expect from a standard crime drama. Both are more sad than bad, however, and McConaughey and Harrelson, though excellent in their respective roles, share a dejected southern mumble that renders each man’s mannerisms and actions only slightly distinguishable from the other.
“True Detective” still easily sets itself apart from its peers on HBO, where superfluous sex, violence and profanity have become the norm. These entertaining elements are present but subverted, remaining latent as most scenes boast a grimmer subtlety. This is highlighted by the show’s remarkably slow pace. The audience feels the sluggish heartbeat of the dying Louisiana town where the crimes take place – a sort of slow breath manifesting itself in the background of a rural wasteland.
“True Detective” offers no instant gratification by solving its central crime. Instead, the real mystery is how – and for how long – the cops will endure the weight of the job. This undoubtedly requires work from the viewer, too – especially since the show is intended to restart each season with a new cast and storyline. This is an effort that will likely be rewarded as the plot develops, suspense builds and the characters reveal more about their dark pasts.