Every now and then a television programme arrives so fully formed and confident that the only response is to gasp in pleasure and applaud. Crime thriller True Detective, which starts on Sky Atlantic on Saturday, is one such show.
On paper the plot doesn’t sound all that different from a thousand similar dramas. In 1995, two mismatched detectives, played by two masters of the laconic, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, investigate a ritual killing in the Louisiana bayou. Seventeen years later those same detectives, both having quit the force in the intervening years, find themselves being interrogated separately about the case and about their own complicated relationship. Is there a new murder? Did they arrest the wrong person? What exactly went wrong both back in 1995 and in 2002, the year when the two men’s partnership came to a sudden end?
The case itself – a naked girl with antlers on her head posed like a ritual sacrifice with a “devil catcher” swaying gently in the breeze above – is the sort of unpleasant shocker that’s increasingly in vogue (is it too much to hope that one day the central murder will involve something other than the degraded, naked body of a young woman?) but what’s interesting is what writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga do with their tale.
“I think the strangeness of it is what attracted Woody and Matthew,” admits Pizzolatto, a 38-year-old novelist and academic whose only previous television experience was writing for the US remake of The Killing. “I was very conscious that I didn’t want it to be a traditional thriller – I know some people might initially be put off by that but I hope they’ll find that the story comes to make sense. It’s actually a very neat narrative, very precise.”
Thus, True Detective is not a straightforward story of the hunt for a serial killer but a study of damnation and the slow fall from grace told over eight tense episodes (if the show returns for a second season it will be with a different cast and setting). Pizzolatto has “literally no interest in serial killers… no interest in trying to shock or gross people out with portrayals of gore”. Instead, he’s fascinated by the lies people tell, both to others, and, more crucially, to themselves. “Illusions and what they cost us is one of the governing themes of the show,” he says. “Both the lead characters have illusions and neither knows how to live well, for different reasons. This is not an ensemble show so much as a two-hander focusing on these men and their relationship.”
It helps that the two lead performances are outstanding. As the confident Hart, Harrelson is all good ole boy charm, until the mask slips and you see something of the coward who lurks within, meanwhile McConaughey, Hollywood’s man of the moment, Oscar-nominated for Dallas Buyers Club, continues his mid-life career revival with an astonishing performance as Cohle.
In the 1995 scenes Cohle is merely odd. Part-time philosopher and full-time obsessive with a past so lurid a penny-dreadful writer would think twice before scribbling it down, by 2012 he’s burnt out and wasted, living on life’s margins and resigned to his fate, yet still possessing enough ruined intelligence to make you wonder just what went wrong.
Many actors would find it impossible not to overplay Cohle. McConaughey’s strength, like that of the equally laid-back Robert Mitchum, lies in his stillness. That’s not to say True Detective, which pulled in 2.3 million viewers in America (HBO’s best for a new show since 2010) and draws more praise with each episode (US critics recently hailed the climax to the fourth episode as “astonishing”) is perfect.
As is too often the case with this type of drama the female characters are pretty much mothers, whores and the mothers of whores. Michelle Monaghan tries hard to make an impression in a largely thankless role as Hart’s wife. Pizzolatto, whose atmospheric first novel, Galveston, suggests he can write a well-rounded female character, insists her role increases in importance as the series progresses.
Pizzolatto and Fukunaga seem intent on throwing the rulebook away, creating something that’s closer in feel to a James Lee Burke novel than a standard television thriller. Their level of control – unusually for a US drama every episode is written by Pizzolatto and directed by Fukunaga – allows them to take a number of risks from long monologues about seemingly tangential subjects to the almost dreamlike pacing, Fukunaga’s camera drifting over the Louisiana landscape, the children hanging out on their bikes, the boarded-up houses, the roads seemingly heading nowhere.
It’s a bleak, hardscrabble world leavened only by the odd moment of dark humour. Most importantly, like David Simon with The Wire, Pizzolatto has created a world that is instantly, utterly his. Atmospheric (the haunting soundtrack comes from country master T Bone Burnett), disturbing and occasionally so pretentious it hurts, True Detective is like nothing else on television right now.
‘True Detective’ starts on Saturday 22 January at 9pm on Sky Atlantic