Review: McConaughey & Harrelson amaze in HBO’s ‘True Detective’

“I have literally no interest in serial killers,” novelist Nic Pizzolatto told me while discussing “True Detective,” the new HBO drama series he created that debuts Sunday night at 9.
This seems a funny thing to say, given that “True Detective” is the story of two Louisiana cops, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, investigating a serial killer case that spans 17 years. Even with “Dexter” gone, TV is awash in serial killer melodrama – some of it great, like NBC”s “Hannibal,” some of it stupid and self-congratulatory like FOX”s “The Following” – and “True Detective” lets McConaughey stand around grisly crime scenes tossing out phrases like “meta psychotic” and “paraphilic love map,” sounding very much like other fictional profilers.
But the more you watch “True Detective” – or, rather, the longer you remain under its hypnotic spell – the easier it is to understand Pizzolatto”s point. This is a show about duality and hidden identities (the opening title sequence features an array of ordinary images laid over other much darker ones), and one that's ultimately much, much less interested in the serial killer than it is in the two men chasing him.
And those men, as written by Pizzolatto and played by McConaughey and Harrelson, are riveting.
It”s not hyperbole to suggest that McConaughey will win every award for which he is eligible, both because he is a Movie Star stooping to work in television, and because he is jaw-droppingly great. McConaughey has reinvented himself in the last few years, using his leading man swagger in service to each performance, rather than a substitute for one. Even if nothing else about “True Detective” worked – and so much of it works spectacularly – McConaughey would be worth the price of admission. (Harrelson”s terrific in his own right, and could also win many trophies if he”s willing to position himself as a supporting actor, even though they”re both clear leads.)
The action in “True Detective” is split between 1995, when McConaughey”s Rust Cohle(*) and Harrelson”s Marty Hart are first assigned to a case that Cohle takes as the work of a serial killer, and 2012, when the two are separately interviewed by a pair of younger detectives about a new case that may be connected. Hart, who presents as the more straight-forward member of the team, appears roughly the same in each era, other than his hairline. Cohle, though, has disintegrated. In the ’90s scenes, we learn an incredible string of tragedies have turned him into an empty shell that has taught itself how to still act human when needed; by 2012, he”s given up on any pretense at all, and resembles a version of Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” who stared too long into the void. (The stringy wig and droopy mustache McConaughey wears in the 2012 scenes deserve an award of their own.)
(*) Like many elements of “True Detective,” Cohle”s name (it”s short for Rustin) seems almost comically over-the-top when you first encounter it, before quickly becoming a fundamental match for the character and the material. Of course this wreck of a man goes by Rust.
There”s an eerie calm to McConaughey”s performance. He clearly understands that the only proper approach to this giant ball of crazy fire he”s been handed is to underplay him. The less he moves, and the more softly he speaks, the more powerful and troubling the performance becomes, and the easier it gets to go along with one of his many monologues about the meaningless of human existence.
“I have seen the finale of thousands of lives, man,” he announces in one of these speeches. “Each one is so sure of their realness, that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose, meaning, so certain that they were more than a biological puppet, when truth wills out, and everybody sees once the strings are cut.”
Now, that reads like the sort of thing your freshman roommate announces at 2:37 a.m. during an all-night cramming session for a philosophy midterm. But as delivered so calmly and authoritatively by McConaughey, it resonates.
McConaughey”s stillness is a perfect match for the frustrated energy of Harrelson as Hart.(**) Hart considers himself an easy-going family man with all the answers to life and the job, but we learn in time that there are many dark ripples beneath his placid surface, and that Cohle may in fact be the saner – or, at least, more self-aware – half of the partnership. Hart”s problem is that he”s in denial about who he really is; Cohle”s problem is that he knows too much about who he is and what he”s capable of.
(**) McConaughey and Harrelson are so well-matched physically, and such good friends in real life, that it”s strange they haven”t worked together more, especially in any script that requires one of them to have a brother. Both have so much experience playing both heroes and lunatics that I can imagine a version of “True Detective” where each steps easily into the other man”s role.

Pizzolatto wrote all eight episodes, and Cary Fukunaga (“Jane Eyre”) directed them all, an unusual arrangement that pays enormous dividends. Pizzolatto has a distinct hard-boiled voice, and Fukunaga consistently translates it into hauntingly beautiful images. The world Hart and Cohle inhabit is leeched of color, and at times hope; when Cohle looks at his surroundings and declares, “This place is like somebody”s memory of a town, and the memory”s fading,” you can see exactly what he means. (Even though, as usual, this brand of commentary irritates the hell out of his partner.) It all feels of one consistent, lurid piece, whether the wide-open action of the 1995 scenes or the stagey, bottled-up interview sequences from 2012.
Cohle and Hart become such compelling characters that they paper over some of the series” weaknesses. The plot is presented in a fragmented fashion, and while some of this is by design – our narrators in 2012 tend to recall events out of order – the mystery by and large isn”t the easiest to follow, or most satisfying, part of the piece. For the most part, “True Detective” manages to be grim without being graphic – far more terrible things are described than are ever actually shown on camera – but given Pizzolatto”s stated apathy for the serial killer genre, one wonders if he couldn”t have fashioned a different kind of investigation that would still push the necessary buttons for his two leads. And Michelle Monaghan has a thankless role (at least in the four episodes I”ve seen) as Hart”s wife, the stock female character in this kind of genre story who is there to understandably disapprove of her husband”s long hours and bad behavior. So much of the series manages to tilt clichés on their sides, but in the early going, Monaghan is playing exactly whom you think she”d be playing, with as little reward from the material as you”d expect.
But the two central performances are so powerful, the dialogue so evocative, the look so intense, that they speak to the value of the hybrid anthology format Pizzolatto is using here – which, along with FX”s “American Horror Story,” points to a potentially fascinating shift in dramatic series television.
The first golden age of TV drama in the ’50s and ’60s was built primarily around anthology shows. Each week, the likes of “Playhouse 90,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and more would present brand-new stories featuring new actors and characters, often from a different creative team than the one before. After a time, though, audiences came to prefer characters they could follow week after week, season after season – to the point where most of these characters were held in stasis, barely changing at all over the years – to ones who would only appear in their living room for a single engagement. Anthologies fell out of favor, and though someone tries to reboot “The Twilight Zone” every few decades, the only anthology shows that succeeded in later years tended to be disguised as something else. (“Quantum Leap,” for instance, was an anthology where Scott Bakula was transplanted into a new genre in each episode, impersonating someone new even as we knew his true identity.)
Another drama peak arrived in the ’70s with the invention of the miniseries. Projects like “Roots,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Shogun” had a vaster scope, frequently covering a character”s entire lifetime, or following them on an epic journey. Eventually, though, the networks got out of that business, which involved pouring a lot of money and promotional resources into shows that wouldn”t be long-term assets.
We”re in another great period for drama right now, but it hasn”t been without its flaws, one of them being that many of the new classics have run a bit longer than they probably should have, and/or have ended in disappointing fashion. TV series are designed to have beginnings and then an endless middle; conclusions are more difficult, and that middle portion often stretches characters and situations past their point of usefulness. Imagine how much differently we would think about “Homeland” had it only run one season, for instance, or if “Dexter” had only run three or four instead of eight.
Leave it to, of all people, Ryan Murphy (whose shows like “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee” have burned hot, burned bright and burned out long before their ends) to uncover a new path, and a new storytelling model that “True Detective” and hopefully others will follow: the series of anthology miniseries.
Murphy”s “American Horror Story” was introduced as the tale of a family moving into a haunted house, and viewers wondered how that might be sustained over multiple seasons. Instead, “AHS” wrapped up that story in its first year and came back in an entirely new era and setting, with a new cast of characters (albeit many of them played by actors from the haunted house season). It”s enough of a compromise between ongoing and anthology – characters you can follow for a whole season, and a brand name and creative team you can watch for years – to have become a big hit, and whether you like it or not, it does not tend to overstay its welcome.
“True Detective” is designed along similar lines. McConaughey and Harrelson aren”t at a stage of their careers where they would commit to four or five years of an ongoing show, but ask for only five months of their time and two characters this rich, and you can get them. And because the actors won”t be sticking around, Pizzolatto is able to take every last interesting scrap of each character, and of this case, and squeeze it all into only eight episodes that feel incredibly dense with event and meaning, even at times when Rust and Marty are making fairly slow progress in their investigation. If both men are thoroughly used up by the end of eight episodes – and Cohle seems exactly like the kind of character whose mystique would evaporate over a longer run – it won”t matter, because no one will have to figure out how to get Carrie Mathison back into the CIA or keep the Sons of Anarchy out of prison yet again. This is the story; tell it as well as you possibly can and move onto the next one.
Pizzolatto says that if the show is a success, future seasons wouldn”t automatically involve cops and/or killers, but simply a mystery that a new set of characters has to solve. Based on the plaudits and awards I expect the show to receive, he shouldn”t have a problem enticing an equally-talented cast for the second round. And based on these first four episodes, I can”t wait for “True Detective” to become HBO”s next great dramatic institution, and perhaps encourage more creators and networks to embrace the value of shorter stories.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at