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Television: Modern noir stays true to its dark heart

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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

"HBO gathered two of the most dementedly compelling leading men of recent cinema history"

True Detective.
Sky Atlantic Monday

Sometimes a show that producers think is too big to fail is, rather, just too big, and collapses under its own weight and the weight of public expectation (Spoils Of Babylon is a good, recent example). And so it could have gone for True Detective.

By pitting Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey against each other as very different detectives, HBO gathered two of the most dementedly compelling leading men of recent cinema history, who between them have received nearly as much attention for their hell-raising antics as their own craft – McConaughey, particularly, is a criminally underrated actor. Here, they play a pair of mismatched Louisiana murder squad detectives who catch the case of a young woman killed in an apparently ritualistic fashion.

So far, so ho-hum. After all, mismatched cops are a staple of our TV diet and even the murder bore a passing resemblance to that other high-concept cop show, Hannibal.

But from the opening credits, with The Handsome Family providing the theme tune, there was the very real sense that this was something special. It's 1995 and the world as we know it is about to change – this is a world with no computers in the cops' case room, nor are there any mobile phones, when two recently partnered cops discover the body of a young woman, trussed in a deliberate and specific fashion. Where Harrelson's good ol' boy cop Martin Hart sees another murder, albeit a weird one, McConaughey's glacial Rust Stohn sees something darker. Hart confidently states that the killing must be personal, due to the gruesome nature, while Stohn notices the specific tableau and draws a different conclusion – and their approach is just one of the differences between the two.

Hart, the steady, smart cop who hunts a case down; Stohn, one of the first profilers, a different and more analytical breed to his staid partner. One's gumshoe instincts are the past, while Stohn's glacial, analytical demeanour give the impression of two detectives who arrive not just from a different era, but from another TV genre entirely. And that is the languid, arrogant beauty of True Detective – scenes and dialogue that could have seemed forced or cornball in lesser hands here come with a gravity that demands the viewer sit forward and pay attention to ensure they don't miss any of the frequently mumbled dialogue.

When the normally gnomic Stohn – carrying a back story that includes a dead daughter and other dark hints – opens up with his philosophy, he expounds to his increasingly horrified partner that: "Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law... Maybe the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal."

CSI, this is not. But always the air. Always the air of dread and dark deeds barely acknowledged – on all sides.

Shot in 35 mm, with T Bone Burnett providing the soundtrack to go with The Handsome Family's theme, the long tracking shots of the rundown shacks and hovels of the dirt poor Southerners could have been lifted straight from Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, that brilliant, beautiful docu-movie about the lives of disenfranchised and frequently deranged rednecks.

We see the poverty, the furious and silent despair, drugs and that strange, seductive, swagger the southern states have – in myth if not reality.

In other words, the dirt track background is nothing we haven't seen before – it's just that we have seldom seen it done so well. As Rust says as they pull up to interview a potential witness: "This town is like someone's memory of a town. And that memory has faded."

The plot flips between two timelines, 1995 when the crime took place, and 17 years later in 2012 when the two, now estranged, former partners give seperate testimony to a new team of investigators, who are worried about a copycat.

Hart is a little older, a little wider around the middle; Sothn, who we earlier see making such an effort to keep a tight rein on his demons, is now a beligerent, cynical, drunken mess. It's a banal cliche to say that we're going through a golden age of TV.

But there is no denying that True Detective is really, truly, a serious and engrossing piece of modern noire.

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