I came to HBO’s newest series on a week delay, unexpectedly following a dispiriting NFC championship game in which my beloved 49ers lost in heartbreaking fashion. My friend just so happened to recommend a double feature of the first two episodes of True Detective as a salve for my depression, which given the show’s bleak tone could be interpreted as mightily ironic.
At the time, all I knew about the show was from its billboard, a grayscale rendition of its two male leads: Mathew McConaughey with some leftover gaunt from his HIV-positive character turn in Dallas Buyers Club, and Woody Harrelson with a camouflaging wispy blonde hairpiece. Two stoners from east Texas, as my friend referred to them. We riffed as opening titles ran that they probably spent their months off set at a ranch near Austin, rolling joints and jamming with Woody Nelson and Owen Wilson. Of course, as much as we enjoyed joking at their expense, these two actors, who’ve matured lately like two bottles of southern Bourbon, are what initially drew us to this show. The idea of them together as partners was innately alluring because of the meshing appeal that they’ve constructed throughout their respective careers. It’s one reason they’re billed so prominently as Executive Producers on the show.
The series pulls you in quickly, albeit in somewhat disorienting fashion. A long shot of a burning Louisiana marsh appears before any of the characters, fading into blackness and then immediately into the separate interview sessions featuring our two protagonists, Detective Hart (Harrelson) and Detective Cohle (McConaughey). These interviews become our framing device, guiding us through the intricate mystery at the heart of the show. An almost satanic mystery, we soon discover as our two detectives, seventeen years now in the past, drive out into a Louisiana meadow where a murder scene awaits. Ostensibly, a woman – revealed to be a prostitute named Dora Lang – adorned as some cultish pagan sacrifice. A cleft in the series focus quickly emerges as Harrelson’s Hart seizes control of the narrative in the pilot.
Back in the interviewed present, Hart details his old partner, brand new at the time of the case, as someone both aloof and meticulous. He notes that their Lousiana precinct had nicknamed the unfriendly new detective Taxman. McConaughey’s acting traces the description with unwavering focus, dialing up his newly thinned frame, presenting his pathogen as something attune with disease of the mind rather than that of the body. A nihilism reeks from his flesh in both past and present even as the visuals differ quite greatly, especially when compared to Harrelson’s static time jump appearance. McConaughey’s Cohle in the present resembles a hillbilly with no care in the world, while the past version depicts a shattered individual still gripping to some form of routine. Taxman seems especially apt a moniker. In many ways, the older version of Cohle is someone more appealing, having succumbed gently to his dark worldview, now keeping to himself and his drink.
“The Long Bright Dark” establishes the relationship between these two detectives as odd, but buddy odd. Harrelson’s Hart displays an affinity for his new partner several times, first defending the newcomer to their superior and then inviting him over for dinner one night. Although, Cohle disappoints by arriving inebriated, Hart forgives him anyway. Over family dinner, Cohle reveals some insight into how he came to be so broken, establishing an empathetic nature that rattles the scene, specifically Hart’s wife Maggie played by Michelle Monaghan.
Despite the impressive acting from our two leads, along with supporting players led by the irrefutable Kevin Dunn as precinct captain – I can’t tell you how happy I am to see that talented actor not playing Shia Labeouf’s dad – the pilot episode has a swamp flow to it, which might repel certain people from investing their time. The second episode, in a lot of ways, makes those initially repelled seem foolish. Fortunately, I came to the show tardy and got to enjoy both episodes as a duo. Otherwise, who knows?
“Seeing Things” provides the second hemisphere of our narrative, delving greatly into Cohle’s perspective of events. And by golly, does he have some trippy perspective. McConaughey’s Cohle, when not providing some brilliant blasts of southern soliloquy as his future self, presents a chemically addled mind in convincing fashion. The director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who helms the entire first season, stamps his vision on your mind at this point, a slow burn of stylistic intent that suddenly bursts forth from mere hints throughout the initial episode. Harrelson’s Hart also takes on new form through the eyes of Cohle, providing Woody some opportunity to strut his chops and provide new depth to his relatively straight-laced lawman. Above all else, we’re at last granted some breathtaking HBO nudity, perhaps the greatest breast reveal of this young year provided by talented and game actress Alexandra Daddario. It could be considered a flaw that this nudity is the only striking contribution from a female character in the series thus far, but I’ll leave that issue of gender parity to individual viewers to decide.
Ultimately, the central mystery, our pagan murder, doesn’t reveal its first real clue until the end of the second episode. I argue that shouldn’t matter all too much when a show establishes such magnetic dual protagonists, coating them in a syrupy setting that oozes unanimously throughout the dialogue and imagery. True Detective presents something improbably formed for such a young series, a consistency of vision already rivaling Vince Gilligan’s master lab “Breaking Bad” at its early stages. We find buried underneath the allure of two peaking actors a nearly anonymous show runner, Louisiana native Nic Pizzolatto, who also happens to have written every episode for this season. Apart from two under-the-radar novels within the last few years, Pizzolatto has been absent from our cultural zeitgeist, having been a traveling academic up until this decade. This mysterious newcomer wields a stunning grasp for intricate storytelling, which merges seamlessly with Fukunaga’s dynamic directorial hand. These two men steer the tiller with an assuredness far exceeding their limited résumés. It also speaks to some true guts with the producers and HBO that they would enable this vision so wholeheartedly.
I left my friend’s house after ten on a Sunday night, no longer lamenting a doomed football affair in Seattle. Instead, I walked to my car reflecting on how two stoners from east Texas had done a fantastic job developing a television show, and looked forward enjoying this foreboding universe for years to come.