written by Nic Pizzolatto | directed by Cary Joji Fukunada
A new drama from HBO never fails to elicit frantic hand-rubbing, as the US cable network succeeds more often than it fails (and even the failures are noble, interesting ones). True Detective also has the advantage of starring three bonafide Hollywood stars in Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and Michelle Monaghan, plus a short eight-hour commitment with the promise a potential second season will tell a completely different story.
True Detective is a good old fashioned murder-mystery case, but with some structural quirks and one juicily off-kilter performance. It tells the story of two mismatched detectives working in Louisiana back in 1995: married everyman Detective Martin "Marty" Hart (Harrelson) and his quirky partner Detective Rustin "Rusty" Cohle (McConaughey). They lead the investigation into the ritualistic murder of a prostitute called Dora Kelly Lange—found naked tied to a tree in a field, with a bizarre symbol painted on her back, wearing a crown of antlers, and surrounded by so-called 'Devil Nets' (latticeworks made of twigs).
So far, so typical for dark and unsettling serial killer dramas of this ilk. What keeps True Detective feeling fresh is how the core story is actually an extensive flashback, as Marty and Rusty are being interviewed about the Dora Kelly case 17-years later in 2012—looking balder and greyer, respectively—as the casework was apparently lost during Hurricane Rita, and the killer may have resurfaced. It's also interesting to note that the detectives parted ways seven years after the case began, in 2002, and are now estranged from each other.
But the show's USP is the character of Rusty himself, who's one of the most unsettling screen sleuths I can remember seeing. An atheist bachelor in his forties, living along in a house with no furniture, Rusty keeps himself occupied reading murder psychology textbooks and meditating about Jesus contemplating his own crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane. O-kay. A self-confessed pessimist who's "bad at parties", Rusty's also earned himself the nickname of The Taxman (on account of the fact he carries a large ledger around with him, on which to make notes and sketch drawings during his investigations).
True Detective is going to be a slow burn, that much is clear. This opening episode, "The Long Bright Dark", moves at a languid pace that matches the odd dreaminess of the silent Louisiana countryside, often filmed from above from God's vantage point. Something peculiar is happening down there, which may involve the unreported case of a missing girl in 1990, and it seems like these two detectives are the thin blue line separating Good and Evil.
While I'd ordinarily be cautious about a crime drama like this, it's good to know the story will end in just eight-weeks, as True Detective is to detective shows what American Horror Story is to horror shows—an anthology, wise enough to understand some ideas don't justify multiple, open-ended seasons. I only hope this thinking eventually infects mainstream US networks, as too many good shows slowly asphyxiate themselves because their concept isn't malleable enough to last more than two or three years. (To wit; I also watched the pilot of Hostages a few days ago, and I have no idea how they'll even squeeze another few hours out of that idea.)
Like all HBO dramas, this show looks beautiful. Director and cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunada is helming all the episodes, best know for making 2011's Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. A relatively fresh talent, Fukunada is certainly no slouch when it comes to conjuring an intoxicating airless atmosphere. It also occurs to me that it's hard to communicate a feeling of the mid-1990s, as the decade doesn't really seem to have a clear aesthetic like so many others, and yet True Detective pulled it off. Things feel very familiar, and yet a laptop or a mobile phone isn't helping cut any corners. Rusty's sketching in books rather than snapping the crime scene with an iPhone.
Overall, while I can't say True Detective had me gripped every second (it tended to meander at times), I have a suspicion this drama will get progressively meatier and more enticing as the weeks pass and the investigation gathers momentum. The investment of time is negligible (even by US cable standards), the performances are first-rate (McConaughey's haunted lawman is mesmerising), it has a brilliantly dry sense of humour about itself, and if you like your 'whodunits?' with a dollop of freakishness you can't go wrong here.