No need to dig up the old casefiles: If you’ve watched virtually any hour-long TV dramas in the past half-decade, True Detective‘s M.O. definitely fits a pattern. Southern Gothic atmosphere. Recession economics. Middle-aged white male antiheroes who smoke, drink, talk, and fuck inappropriately. Murders involving antlers, the on-trend accessory for today’s discerning serial killer. Even its relatively novel format – it’s an eight-episode story written and directed in its entirety by Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga respectively – is only relatively novel: It shares its new-story-every-season anthology format with American Horror Story. And given its “odd couple of cops track a ritualistic serial killer in a dying Louisiana town” premise, it may as well share that title, too.
At first glance, the only thing that truly distinguishes True Detective is its cast, specifically its two movie-star leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. McConaughey comes to the small screen in the middle of his Dallas Buyers Club/Wolf of Wall Street hot streak; Harrelson returns as a veteran of HBO’s Game Change and, of course, creator of his eponymous character on Cheers – an all-time great TV comedy performance whose country-boy good-naturedness he’s been busy inverting ever since Natural Born Killers. And given both actors’ nearly identical public images as genial Texas tokers, the big task of True Detective‘s premiere is simply to tell their two characters apart.
Turns out that’s easy enough: Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart and McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle aren’t so much good cop/bad cop as normal cop/sad cop. Let’s start with Cohle: He’s a pill-popping alcoholic insomniac whose fellow cops hate him because they believe he worked for internal affairs. He has an apartment with no furniture except a mattress on the floor and a stack of books about murder, and he keeps a crucifix on the wall not because he’s a Christian but because he finds solace in contemplating how Jesus surrendered himself to be slowly executed. When he finally opens up to his partner, it’s to deliver morose soliloquies about how the entire world is “all one ghetto, man – a giant gutter in outer space,” and how mankind’s best bet is to collectively stop reproducing and volunteer for extinction. He has no family, because his wife left him after their daughter died. For crying out loud, his name is Rust Cohle – he’s named after metal corrosion and the fossil fuel that causes miner’s lung. Harrelson’s character could spend the entire episode in the midst of an uncontrollable crying jag and he’d still seem cheery by comparison.
Yet while his character is not exactly Mister Sunshine, Harrelson’s Hart is indeed painted as a basically okay guy. For one thing, he’s the show’s primary method of self-critique, constantly and amusingly mocking Rust’s gloomy pronouncements while begging him to knock it off: “Stop sayin’ odd shit, like you ‘smell a psycho’s fear,’ like you’re in ‘someone’s faded memory of a town.'” The dynamic’s like a dad deflating the newfound pretensions of his college-kid son during the boy’s first Thanksgiving visit back home.
But Hart’s got obvious sympathy for Cohle, even if – unlike his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who finds out right away – he has no idea what happened in Cohle’s life to make him a sympathetic figure in the first place. He repeatedly defends Rust’s skills and intelligence to other cops, both in the present-day framing sequence and on that first day of the big ritual-murder case, where he could just as easily have encouraged his boss to nudge Cohle off the case. When Rust shows up to Marty and Maggie’s house drunk for a getting-to-know-you dinner, Marty reacts to the revelation of his partner’s alcoholism with gentleness, setting up a face-saving ride home from another cop (even if he looks pretty pissed when Rust winds up sticking around).
Ultimately, it’s Harrelson’s jut-jowled, mumble-mouthed, hangdog performance that gives Marty Hart his heft, just as it’s McConaughey’s terseness that makes Rust so interesting to watch. The big moment here comes when Marty and Rust get their first look at the elaborately posed murder victim at the center of the season, a part-time prostitute named Dora Lang who, in Hart’s memorable description, is “drugged, bound, tortured with a knife, strangled, posed out there” in a field wearing a crown of thorns and antlers. Both men steel themselves for what’s to come, you can see it on their faces and read it in their body language, but Hart actually looks sad. You can see this sight take something out of him, deflate the balloon of his spirit ever so slightly. Cohle, by contrast, buries himself in note-taking, theory-spouting, and eventually philosophizing – he turns the killing into a very precise, very depressing series of thoughts and statements. Rust seems to just get wound up more and more tightly with each horror he encounters; Marty sags and expands under the weight of it all, as if to ooze away from it. Their present-day incarnations – Rust a sarcastic, rough-looking outsider who drinks beer by the sixpack, Marty a glad-handling P.I. who seems to have mastered the system by refusing to get too worked up by it – both seem like logical conclusions to the journeys we seem them begin here.
Is it enough to set True Detective apart from the ever-expanding squad of grim-and-gritty cop/killer dramas? That case isn’t yet closed, though there’s plenty of cause for optimism. The presence of two of The Wire‘s most fun performers, Clarke “Lester Freamon” Peters and Michael “Brother Mouzone” Potts, almost automatically makes for good television. Monaghan’s not given much to do yet but be oblivious, but Marty’s affair with a clerk (Alexandria Daddario) is so comically obvious that it may mean the show plans on doing something a bit livelier than the usual cheatin’-hearts shtick with that relationship. And there’s something promising about the show’s pacing so far, too, the way its cuts between the original case in the ’90s and the characters’ memories of it in 2012 allows it to speed up and slow down various revelations depending on the needs of the moment. A little luck, a little legwork, and who knows – we may have caught a good one here.