Shaping up to be one of the great modern television dramas, True Detective is the kind of slow burn that could only exist on HBO. Jumping back and forth from 1995 to 2012, the show follows two drastically different homicide detectives (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) and their investigation into a string of murders possibly having to deal with the occult, as well catching up with them seventeen years later in their interviews with other detectives who are investigating a possible copycat killer.
While there is a traditional mystery at the heart of True Detective, the real mystery is why these two antiheroes decided to call it quits after close to a decade as partners. Over the course of eight episodes (there have been four already), we slowly start to figure out who these two people are and where their motivations and loyalties really lie.
Matthew McConaughey delivers the performance of his career as the fiercely cynical and introverted young detective with a haunting past turned extroverted drunkard who has replaced his brooding sadness with sardonic wit. Woody Harrelson is equally as impressive (albeit in a less interesting role) as a much more conventional but arguably darker man, Marty Hart. Hart is a master manipulator who’s unfaithful, drunk and always in a psychological battle with himself to prove his masculinity.
Marty projects an image of an old fashioned man’s man, but is far too emotionally weak and entitled to live up to that image in his private life. On the other hand, Rust has no illusions about the kind of man he is — a pragmatist’s pragmatist and a nihilist’s nihilist. He’s a man who thinks the day-to-day grind is pointless and we’d all be better off jumping head first into an industrial size wood chipper, but at the same time knows human nature well enough to understand why we keep fighting. True Detective is really just the story of how two men play off each other, so the supporting cast, while solid, serve only to progress the plot.
Walking into True Detective, I figured the two leading performances would be outstanding but would ultimately overshadow the other aspects of the production. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The writing, directing, cinematography and editing match Harrelson and McConaughey in brilliance. With all eight episodes written by creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, True Detective boasts a level of consistency that no other series has matched. The dialogue is sharp, witty and profoundly poetic in its examination of humanity.
The cinematography perfectly captures both the beauty and seediness of Louisiana, as well being able to make any scene tense and nerve-wracking that on most police dramas would simply be filler. The fourth episode ends with a six minute tracking shot, all done in a single take, that is as riveting and masterfully done as anything I’ve ever seen on HBO, let alone television.
The first three episodes are leisurely paced, allowing the viewer to soak up all the nuances of Rust and Marty before letting them go wild in the fourth episode. This will lose audiences seeking the quick and cheap thrills of American Horror Story, but for those looking for an intellectually engaging experience that doesn’t spoon feed you simple answers, True Detective is a true gem. It’s a new benchmark in how outstanding television can be.
You can catch the first four episodes on HBOGO, with each of the remaining four episodes premiering every Sunday at 9pm.