There are a lot of crime investigation dramas on TV. There are also a lot of shows about serial killers. At first glance, one might mistake HBO's new drama 'True Detective' for one of those. However, the further along the opening hour of the show goes, the more apparent it becomes that 'True Detective' is an altogether different beast.
I'll try to keep this free of any major spoilers, but here's a little background. Woody Harrelson co-stars as Detective Martin Hart, a man that appears on the surface to be your typical family raising, god fearing, by the book Louisiana lawman. Matthew McConaughey portrays Detective Rust Cohle, a Texas transplant that holds an incredibly pessimistic view of humanity and the human condition, which at times borders on all out nihilism.
Shortly after Cohle is assigned to be Hart's partner, the two men are called to the scene of a grisly ritualistic murder with apparent occult ties. Hart has never seen anything like it, and is a bit perplexed as to how to proceed. Cohle on the other hand seems to have extensive knowledge of this type of crime, and believes it to be the work of a serial killer.
While the investigation into the opening death occupies the majority of the episode, those events are actually set in 1995, and are occasionally interrupted by 2012 set framing sequences of aging Hart and Cohle relaying the details of their old case to the police.
With shows like 'Hannibal' on the air, the plot of 'True Detective' doesn't exactly scream originality. In fact, the opening murder scene bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Garrett Jacob Hobbs in that aforementioned series. The genius of 'True Detective' is that it isn't really about the investigation at all. Sure, the murder keeps Hart and Cohle on the move, and gives them a reason to work together, but the real focus here is the men themselves, and how they live with both each other and their constantly stressful vocation.
McConaughey continues his recent career renaissance as Rust, commanding the screen in every scene, and managing to utter occasionally overwritten, intensely philosophical dialogue without it once feeling forced or false. He may actually be even better in the 2012 set sequences, seeming to have aged 30 years in seventeen, and completely done taking crap from anybody. McConaughey and Harrelson may receive joint billing, but make no mistake, this is Rust Cohle's show. I would not at all be surprised to see Matthew McConaughey accepting his first Emmy award next fall.
Despite McConaughey's status as the clear emotional anchor of the show, Woody Harrelson also shines as Martin Hart, serving to keep the show grounded and the investigation believable. Whenever Cohle goes on a long philosophical rant about how the world would be better off without the human race, Hart is there to verbally smack him in the face and present a common sense counterpoint to what can sometimes come off as psychobabble.
Even Hart isn't as black and white of a character as he initially seems. A late in the hour revelation about Martin's personal life comes out of nowhere, and is likely to shatter many preconceived notions about the man's moral superiority to Cohle. A similar personal revelation about Cohle comes during an extremely awkward dinner with Hart and his family, one that is likewise likely to change how viewers perceive Rust's unrelentingly negative outlook on life.
The usually reliable Michelle Monaghan does fine with what little she has to work with as Martin's wife, with her standout moments coming during the dinner with Rust. Hopefully she gets more to do in future episodes. The rest of the supporting cast all does fine in their small roles, but they don't appear enough to really make an impression.
'True Detective' isn't quite the reinvention of the crime genre that it was originally promoted as, but that doesn't stop it from being a smartly written, well paced, character driven drama featuring two of the best lead performances in recent memory. While the central mystery isn't (yet) fully developed enough to command attention on its own, McConaughey and Harrelson make 'True Detective' more than worth your time.
'True Detective' premieres this Sunday, Jan. 12 at 9/8c on HBO.