January 13, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “True Detective”


TRUE DETECTIVE:  Sunday 9PM on HBO – DVR Alert

It sometimes seems like brooding serial-killer thrillers are as plentiful on the New Television as multi-camera family sitcoms were on the Old.  TRUE DETECTIVE, though, gives the genre the HBO Deluxe treatment–premiering, no less, on the same night one of its stars, Matthew McConaughey, became an official Oscar frontrunner by winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Film.

True Detective is actually somewhat different from the run of TV’s serial killer mill.  It’s structured along the lines of American Horror Story, telling a self-contained story in 8 episodes, the idea being that in success, it would come back with a different story and characters, and potentially a different cast.  The entire season has been written by Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist whose only previous TV credits are for a couple of The Killing scripts (admittedly, not the most promising previous experience), and all the episodes are directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the acclaimed indies Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre.  In McConaughey and to a lesser extent Woody Harrelson, it also stars a bona fide current movie star, still something you don’t see every day on TV.

The show is intriguingly structured between two timeframes.  In 2012, former Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) are estranged ex-partners who had worked together on the Louisiana State Police for years, being questioned by present-day detectives about a crime that echoes one they investigated in 1995, when they’d been a team for only 3 months.  Most of the action in the premiere episode concerned the original murder, which involved the carefully posed (in a very Hannibal way) body of a prostitute.  The script is cagey about parceling out information about what’s going on in 2012, as well as what happened in 2002, when Rust and Martin’s partnership broke up, but there is the suggestion that the former detectives are not being interrogated just to gather background material on the previous crimes.

Fukunaga keeps the atmosphere stark (there is a near-absence of background music, although what there is has been composed by T. Bone Burnett) and oppressive (cinematographer Adam Arkapaw is something of a specialist in this mode, with the grim thrillers Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders and Top of the Lake to his credit).  Cohle describes one of the barren Louisiana towns they pass through as being like the memory of a town, and that feeling is well conveyed by what we see.  The focus is squarely on the two detectives, characters with a relationship drawn with such depth that it’s clear why actors like McConaughey and Harrelson were attracted to the project.  At least in the first episode, McConaughey had the most chance to shine, cast against type as the tightly-wound, existentialist alcoholic of the pair, with a tragic past that’s so far been just briefly described.  It’s yet another great performance from an actor whose fine work is long past being a mere curiosity.  Harrelson’s Hart is the more affable character, with a sense of humor and a family (his wife is played by Michelle Monaghan), but it’s clear that there’s a dark side to him as well, and Harrelson has rarely had this kind of meaty dramatic material to work with in his career.  The two are not only superb individually, but they perform together with quiet expertise.  Most of the hour was spent with the two, although strong actors like Clarke Peters and Jay O. Sanders showed up briefly and will almost certainly be heard from again.

The question with True Detective will be whether, as it explores the abysses of the human psyche, it will also provide a satisfying mystery to be solved (as Broadchurch did) or collapse into its own pretensions (a la The Killing or Top of the Lake)–or find itself somewhere in between, more like The Bridge.  Based on the premiere, Detective certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt; Pizzolatto and Fukunaga seem to be in complete control of the material, with all the top-flight production values an HBO budget allows and a pace that’s measured but gripping, and the acting alone makes the show worth watching.  Not all serial-killer dramas are created equal, and True Detective has the potential to be near the top of the genre.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."