HBO’s ‘True Detective’ Breathes New Life Into Aging Cop Show Clichés

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“You don’t pick your parents, and you don’t pick your partner.” That line comes early in True Detective, HBO’s new cop show, and there’s nothing wrong with letting it worry you a bit — it braces the viewer for yet another variation on the old story about the two cops whose opposite personalities clash, yet find a common ground of respect and camaraderie in the line of duty. That’s not the only prototypical police procedural element of the series: aside from the mismatched partners, you’ve got a grisly serial killer, a captain prone to calling our heroes to the carpet, and political pressure to solve a sensationalistic, high-profile case. You’ve seen all these elements before, but you’ve not seen them done like this. As Roger Ebert used to say, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.” The rule holds true for this TV show, which has the style and experimentation of a great movie.

The series is a bit of an oddity, beyond even the presence of high-caliber marquee stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, because it’s the work of one writer (The Killing’s Nic Pizzolatto) and one director (Cary Fukunaga, who did the 2011 Jane Eyre), each performing that function through the entire eight-episode run. (Even Jane Campion handed off directorial duties for nearly half of Top of the Lake, another cable series that memorably transcended its CSI-ish logline.) That consistency of personnel makes the show feel, even more than with other HBO series like The Wire and Treme, like one long story, rather than several short ones; each episode is a chapter in the novel, rather than a self-contained entity.

McConaughey and Harrelson play Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, two detectives with the Louisiana State CID (Criminal Investigations Division). In the first episode, “The Long Bright Dark,” they’re sent to a graphic, brutal, ritualistic crime scene, where a nude woman has been bound, posed, marked, and murdered. “Them symbols, they’re Satanic,” observes one of the officers on the scene. “They had a 20/20 on it a few years back.” The reference isn’t anachronistic; the investigation begins in 1995, its story told in the present day by Cohle and Hart (neither of whom are still cops) in videotaped statements to their current counterparts.

“I can guarantee you this wasn’t his first,” Cohle says quietly. “Too specific.” And with that, they embark on the investigation of what feels, to the intuitively brilliant detective, like a serial killer. Pizzolatto and Fukunaga evocatively put across what Cohle calls the “days of nothing” while working cases — fruitless daylight bleeding into sleepless nights, dead ends piling up, one witness blurring into the next. But that daily grind is offset with surrealistic flourishes, visions and nightmares and flashbacks rattling around in Cohle’s head from his days working the narco squad. He regards them with the same solemn shrug as everything else in his life.

McConaughey was reportedly the key ingredient that made True Detective happen (Harrelson did the show specifically to work again with his old friend), and you can see why he wanted to play the role so badly. Cohle’s quite a contrast to the electrifying showboats typical of his recent renaissance, like those of Magic Mike and Dallas Buyers Club; Cohle’s low-key, inverted intensity is closer to his work in Killer Joe. He gets most of the good lines (“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door”; “I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s a victory in that”), and he savors that dialogue. But he also digs in to this character with bracing verve, embracing Cohle’s pessimistic — borderline nihilistic — philosophy, religious skepticism (“When the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales, it’s not good for anybody”), and general weariness.

Harrelson’s Hart isn’t much interested in that stuff. “I just want you to stop sayin’ weird shit,” he implores his partner, after a particularly dark rant; he’s an old-school, bottle-it-up type, who explains simply, “There was a time when men didn’t air their bullshit to the world. Just wasn’t part of their job.” But that closed-off worldview has consequences — he’s playing around outside of his troubled marriage (to Michelle Monaghan, as good as ever), and perhaps the highest compliment I can give this usually tired subplot is that it’s not just a time-filling diversion, but a real and honest depiction of a strained marriage, deftly contributing to the story’s overarching feeling of anxiousness and dissatisfaction.

Fukunaga’s confident, moody direction is rife with lyrical touches. Scenes at a trailer-park brothel and a tent revival feel like overheard documentary; the second episode’s closing scene, at a burned-down, grown-out church, feels like a post-apocalyptic snapshot. But most impressive is his negotiation of the story’s intermingling timelines, which he and Pizzolatto weave together with trim vitality, the organizing interview sequences and the investigative flashbacks informing and commenting on each other. They’re filled with information, while posing many unanswered questions — the more we’re told, it seems, the less we know. What, exactly, went bad between these two men? Why is the investigation being reexamined, all these years later? What is the “something else” that, per Cohle, the younger detectives’ questions are really about? And how did Cohle end up the beaten, weathered, day-drinking mess he’s become by the timeline’s conclusion?

HBO provided the first three episodes of True Detective for review, and in them, an awful lot of threads are unwound. Bringing them all together, while sustaining the promise of these initial outings, may take some doing. But I look forward to seeing how they pull it off — and if the show’s creators and crew can maintain this artsy, intelligent, invigorating riff on junk TV premises.