It's probably too early to call "True Detective" (8 p.m. CST Jan. 12, HBO; 4 stars out of 4) the best new show of 2014, but so far, it is.
The new drama, written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, does something I wasn't sure was possible: By focusing on two vastly different detectives more than on the case they're investigating, it adds a fresh twist to the crowded cops-and-serial-killers genre.
As much as I love the show, I realize some viewers will find "True Detective" difficult to embrace. It's talky, melancholic and just plain weird. But it's oddly mesmerizing, too, as layer after layer is peeled away to reveal the duality of main characters played so well by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.
Flipping between 1995 and 2012, the eight-parter follows Louisiana detectives Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey) as they work their first case as partners: the ritualistic murder of a woman named Dora Lange and the baroque staging of her dead body—complete with a crown of antlers—in a sugar cane field.
We learn about what happened in 1995 as both men are interviewed separately in 2012 by two other detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) whose investigation suggests Hart and Cohle didn't solve the case, or that one or both of them could be suspects in a new crime.
Scenes from the interview rooms serve as narration, with Hart and Cohle's answers segueing into scenes from the '90s. In flashbacks, Hart is a solid family man despite believing that he's carrying on an affair in order to protect his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and daughters from the ugliness of his work. He's a sharp, just-the-facts gumshoe detective who doesn't quite know what to make of Cohle's more philosophical, bookish approach. Cohle's a brooding loner who pisses off Hart when he muses about how existence is meaningless and religion is a crock.
The older Hart is bald, divorced and fair in his assessment of Cohle despite the falling out they experienced sometime after Dora's case. Cohle's transformation from 1995 to 2012 is more dramatic. With ratty hair, a mustache and a habit of afternoon drinking, he looks and acts like a man whose pessimistic outlook has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He's a bitter shell of his former self.
"Like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it," he tells his interrogators in 2012, discussing the suspect he and Hart found in 1995. You can't help but wonder if he's talking about himself.
It's this kind of ambiguity that fuels "True Detective" and makes it so damn hypnotic. What drove Hart and Cohle apart? Why has Cohle become such a burn-out? And why are both men being questioned 17 years after the case? There's a bigger mystery here than who killed Dora—and you'll be on the edge of your seat waiting to find out what it is.
Harrelson is reliably terrific as a somewhat frustrated good ole boy, but McConaughey is simply magnetic. Underplaying the craziness of his character with an eerie stillness, McConaughey adds to his recent string of acclaimed roles.
Their riveting work would be worth the admission alone, but the hauntingly beautiful "True Detective" excels in every way.
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