Cold Case

'True Detective’s missing spark

HBO’s True Detective is a spare, serenely shot Southern Gothic that features a script that feels intimately labored over and stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two seemingly mismatched detectives tracking a deranged killer.

The story is split between two timelines, 17 years apart: when the two pursued the case in the mid-Nineties and flash-forwards to a current-day internal investigation of that same case. The show envelops itself in a moody, somber tone and is interpolated with moral exegesis that slides off McConaughey’s Southern twang in lengthy, staccato soliloquies. Written and created by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who previously directed the recent Jane Eyre remake), True Detective possess a meditative quality: It at once tries to be a detective drama and ruminate on the existential nature of the detective drama. But Pizzolatto, a novelist and former literature professor, treats his dialogue as novelistic prose, a transposition that makes for genuinely stirring moments of clarity, but more often can feel stultifyingly opaque. It gestures, quite artistically and actorly, to be a sort of antithetical crime thriller – the televisual equivalent of taking the scenic route. It’s a bold move to make a literary detective drama, but the first half of its eight-episode run left me cold as I vacillated between disinterest and frustration in its stewing character study.

Harrelson plays Marty Hart, a detective in a small Louisiana precinct that doesn’t see much action – Marty’s never had to do much to put any crooks away. But soon after his new partner, Rust Cohle (McConaughey) turns up, they’re called to a gruesome (and bizarre) crime scene: A woman, naked and bound with rope with antlers affixed to her head, is found posed against a stately tree in the middle of marshland. Cohle becomes fixated with the iconography – the antlers, a symbol on the woman’s buttocks – and begins tracing what he believes to be a serial killer’s ritualistic, cultish narrative. Their heart of their investigation doesn’t really take shape until about the show’s third hour, which includes an impressive tracking shot of Cohle pulling a coked-out thug across an entire subdivision in the space of 90 seconds.

Cohle, a sinewy, twitchy fellow, is prone, much to the exasperation of easier-going Marty, to chewing the existential gristle – about good, evil, life, death, our primal capability for moral turpitude – in thick blocks of ponderous, searching speech. Pizzolatto is using the crime-solving element more as a framing device to bring these two together and talking than he is interested in telling a gripping thriller. His dense, grandiose dialogue certainly sounds poetic, but it’s all hifalutin vapors. There’s a whole lot of talking in True Detective, but rarely does it say anything.Not that a show needs constant action to be engaging; Mad Men is a good example of how a slow burn and glacial pace can be leavened by perceptive, quiet character interplay. McConaughey and Harrelson are an interesting pairing, like watching dueling egos inside of a cop car. They have a kinetic, pulsing energy to their back-and-forths that occasionally breaks through their dialogue, which tends to be overwritten for McConaughey and the opposite for Harrelson. McConaughey has the flashy performance – it’s very studied, very precise, especially in the flash-forward scenes, where his Cohle has grown into a longhaired reservation hippie who can carve effigies out of Lone Star cans. Harrelson gets to be more subtle, and so far, is actually playing the better character, particularly in the scenes he shares with Michelle Monaghan, who plays his wife. Pizzolatto’s hyperliterary writing works best as it examines their fraying marriage – Harrelson gets to deliver an incredible bedroom monologue about the erosion of passion and curdling of hope in the third hour that manages to make a Looney Tunes reference feel tender.

True Detective is set up as an anthology series, so like Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, subsequent seasons will have entirely different stories and casts. I like this idea, even if I’m not especially enthused by its first iteration; the best built-in feature of these short-run series is that “new seasons” really do feel new.

True Detective premieres Sunday, Jan. 12, at 11pm on HBO.

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Television, HBO, True Detective, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey

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