If American Horror Story taught us anything it’s that anthologies work really, really well in television. It’s a perfect solution to the tedium of episodic TV – nothing is ever the same, favorite actors get to play in a thrilling playground of different characters and stories, and viewers get to delight in what everyone comes up with next. This is also the idea behind HBO’s new drama series: True Detective, currently airing Sunday evenings (check your local listings for time).
Like AHS, True Detective nailed some high-end talent for their first season – like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. There are others as well (including the underrated Michelle Monaghan), but make no mistake, this show is a vehicle for its two stars and their performances.
Told in different time-periods, True Detective follows the present-day questioning of fictional former southern Louisiana detectives Rustin “Rust” Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson). As both men tell their tales, the viewers are taken back to the mid-1990’s with them as they uncover facts about the case – and each other. Harrelson’s Hart is your typical “Southern Gothic” detective – he talks a lot about God and family but you can see there’s a creepy sonofabitch lurking under that friendly face and welcoming drawl. McConaughey is a whole other deal. I’ll admit to being a fan of his. . .but this character is something I’ve never seen him do before and I’m enthralled. His Rust Cohle is a burnt out, chemical flashback-addled, walking “danger, danger Will Robinson” type of man. Every movement he makes is calculated, every word out of his mouth is like verbal vertigo, which makes the present-day footage of him so unsettling and monumentally watchable.
To say McConaughey’s performance is compelling is accurate, but it would be a disservice to only speak only about the performances. The reason they’re so good is because this show is written so well. There is a little bit of LOST mystery here, where the viewers have a tiny amount of information from the present and a bit from the past. The audience watches as the puzzle pieces are put together to meet somewhere in the middle. But they’re not spelling it out for us, either. Tiny details are alluded to and others are merely glimpsed. It’s the same with discussions between characters – there are no exposition speeches to be found.
Which reminds me of another excellent TV series which True Detective shares some DNA with: NBC’s Hannibal. No, not simply because the first murder victim is wearing a crown made of stag’s horns. Nor because one of the detectives has near-magical “sight” of sorts. It’s because of the visual artistry involved in the show and the lengths to which the creators have gone to make everything feel just so legitimate. These are not caricatures of Bayou folk – these are fully realized and fascinating people. From the Sheriff who must straddle the line between catering to the local religious leader (who also happens to be the brother of the mayor) and good detective work to the rural madam running a brothel to take in runaway girls who suffer worse mistreatment in their family homes . . . these are complex human beings with fascinating stories.
All of which makes for some intensely good television. So is there much horror here? Not as much as you might suspect from the occult aspects. But the creepy vibe is here in spades and previews of future episodes suggest there is much more to be uncovered. However, it does adhere primarily to its detective-thriller roots more than any serial killing aspects. As such, True Detective is much more about the detectives themselves than it is the killings they’re investigating. With only eight episodes in this first season, you won’t have to invest too much time either. If you like good stories and even better performances with a hint of the Southern Gothic genre – True Detective is for you.