HBO’s “True Detective,” which just concluded its first season, is certainly unnerving — and not just because it chronicles two blunt, hard-edged homicide detectives searching for a satanic serial killer for 17 years in worn-down, bucolic Louisiana. Buried underneath is the exploration into the relationship between two tragically flawed detectives. As they struggle to understand the truth behind an unusual murder case, viewers observe the unorthodox testimony of two men trusting each other in order to uncover justice.
Set against the swampy, sun-drenched backdrop of Louisiana, “True Detective” is a wasteland noir told on two tracks: in 1995, when Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) begin the investigation of the ritualistic murder of prostitute Dora Lange, and in 2012, when two detectives separately question Cohle and Hart and reopen the ’95 case after a similar murder occurs. Layered with voice-over, the flashback structure is smoothly narrated. It allows viewers to better understand the characters as the now wiser, scraggly Cohle and the sadder, overweight Hart reflect and reconnect with their buried, past selves.
Beleaguered with a painful past, Cohle is fresh off four years as an undercover narc at the onset of the ’95 timeline. His aloofness makes other detectives in the division wary and hostile towards him. Appreciating Cohle’s investigative skill, Hart reluctantly welcomes his new partner and the two stumble upon their own self-revelation as they struggle to solve the sadistic murder.
Cohle is an intellectual loner, spitting reflexive, philosophical ideas that he himself does not fully understand. Chock-full of Nietzsche views, Cohle reeks of gravitas and spills his nihilistic outlook on the tragedy of humanity to a disgruntled Hart during their long road trips across pastoral Louisiana. On the other hand, Hart is a meat-and-potatoes family man whose personal philosophy is working hard and having a beer afterwards. Yet even Hart grapples with his own demons in his propensity to blithely cheat on his wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), thereby revealing hypocrisy, which Cohle soon derides. Despite their differences, the two complement each other’s polarity.
Although the murder case is enthralling, viewers primarily watch “True Detective” because they are more intrigued with what will become of Cohle and Hart. The rural degradation of Louisiana mirrors the mentality of the characters and their faith in humanity. Things happen for a reason. The detectives search to do some right in a perpetually decrepit Louisiana brings them closer to form a taut bond of loyalty and trust.
McConaughey and Harrelson are creatively convincing, driving the innovatively scripted “True Detective.” They portray rugged, broken Southerners like pros, perfectly rendering the darkening of their characters. McConaughey says he was drawn to Cohle’s character since “he [Cohle] keeps his own counsel.” After his recent Oscar, McConaughey is a Hollywood Cinderella story. The McConaissance is trending and reinvigorating Harrelson’s career as well.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto wrote all eight episodes as an anthology. There is something charming about the slow-burning eerie drama; it’s short and sweet (and easy to binge). Season One’s eight-episode arc, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who also directed the 2011 adaptation “Jane Eyre,” showcases raw performances from McConaughey and Harrelson. Fortunately, the show is uninhibited from elongating the two characters over subsequent seasons. Season 2 will be entirely different — with a new story and new cast — and actors and scripts are already being strung together.
At times, the dialogue between Cohle and Hart overflows with 10-dollar words, forcing the show to seem novelistic. Pizzolatto arbitrarily throws in cursory phrases for Cohle to languidly philosophize about with the intent of addig depth to his character (while also adding appreciative McConaughey-isms). Instead, the audience is left puzzled, attempting to dissect long-winded rants on religion and morality.
Another aspect where “True Detective” fails is its lack of definition in supporting characters and cast ensemble. The show focuses too much on the dialectic between the duo, and not enough on the cheated wife Maggie, the next prominent character. Her paper-thin, one-dimensional interior does not propel the story or offer us additional detail on Hart’s internal conflicts. Monaghan’s acting is elegant, flowing with poignant authenticity, but viewers don’t get enough of her character.
But despite its few flaws, “True Detective” labors on to depict the slipperiness of humanity. Although “True Detective” starts as a stereotypical HBO show with bottled-up cliche cops, the show grows into something meaningful: how camaraderie can be formed in a debauched excursion into darkness.