Sunday was a very good night for Matthew McConaughey: a Golden Globe win for Dallas Buyers Club and the series premiere of HBO’s True Detective in which he co-stars alongside Woody Harrelson. And yet, the new crime drama leaves much to be desired.
There are many loose threads by the end of the sixty-minute series premiere, allowing Nic Pizzolato, the sole writer and executive producer of the show, a number of directions to take the series. Ostensibly, the central premise of True Detective is that there is a serial killer loose in Louisiana whom Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) believed they caught in 1995, but who has resurfaced in 2012. It’s worth noting Harrelson’s Louisiana accent is dreadfully unconvincing. (McConaughey gets a pass as his character is a Texan transplant).
It’s a straightforward premise, but time flutters in the pilot, “The Long Bright Dark,” to the point of disorientation. We flash between 1995 to taped depositions in 2012 to an unknown time and place in the opening scene depicting a fire in a stretch of dark field. While these narrative jumps have moments of seamlessness, the deliberate lapses in time function as a not-so-transparent device to plant as many seeds of conflict as possible, and to distract the viewer from the fact that these characters and this story are something we’ve seen played out before, and in much more artful and compelling fashions. It’s not entirely surprising to learn that Pizzolato has spent his career as a successful fiction writer; the disjoint between what can be successful on the page and on the screen becomes plainly evident in True Detective’s first showing.
While the scenes are shot beautifully and with a characteristic Southern brand of menace, True Detective does not manage to sidestep the plentiful archetypes and tropes that befall the basic crime genre, let alone those reserved for Southerners. Rust Cohle (McConaughey) is the taciturn loner whose single-apartment room is barren and filled with crime novels. When his partner Martin Hart (Harrelson) questions him on his faith and family, Cohle declares himself a pessimist, offering a nihilistic, atheistic worldview that disturbs Hart. Naturally, Hart’s character is the simpler family man who doesn’t want to hear that kind of talk. Their exchanges are strained in a predictable way as the basic conceit of the show unravels. A voiceover of Hart croons, “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” Surprise, then, when Cohle not only has a substance abuse problem, but has suffered the death of a young daughter and a wife who’s left him. Cohle stares longingly out of the passenger window of the cop car at a young girl and asks, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Sigh.
Of course, these familiar characters could work if what was at the center of their pursuit was novel. Perhaps it speaks to our desensitization to violence that the serial killer and his crimes strike us as wholly unoriginal. The female victim of episode one has been tortured and positioned with deer antlers above her head—a motif that continues in the killer’s crimes into 2012—and anyone who’s watching good television will automatically think of Hannibal on NBC, and they’ll also think how much Hannibal is doing it better. With Hannibal, the crimes are certainly horrific, but there is the added element that the characters we’re dealing with have something entirely distinct about them that defy our expectations as seasoned viewers. The claim is not that every character in a crime show has to be a cannibal or fall somewhere on the autism scale, but that the drunken, lonely cop buddied up with the country boy has seen enough air time that it’s frankly a little surprising that the show was green-lit.
In the flash-forwards to Cohle, it’s clear that he’s deteriorated from his 1995 form: he’s disheveled and haggard. Hart is clean-shaven and bald. The promise of the pilot is that soon these partners, who haven’t spoken to each other for ten years after some to-be-revealed event dissolved their relationship, will be forced to work with each other again to catch the true killer. After organizing the events of the pilot linearly, that’s the terminal conclusion of the premiere. Unfortunately, this process of organization only serves to reveal how much True Detective relies on the familiar and well-chartered territory of the Southern gothic narrative and the procedural cop beat. It’s the kind of crime they’ve never seen, Cohle falls off the wagon because of the murder and how it coincides with the birthday of his dead daughter, a reverend comes to the station saying the citizens are concerned about how the crime has been labeled by the media as “occult,” Hart claims this killer will certainly strike again. It’s all been done.
McConaughey’s performance stands out in the “present” where he’s sporting long, grey hair and demanding beer in the interrogation room, but he’s ultimately a strange choice for the role. In the 1995 scenes, when he’s supposed to be the tortured intellectual haunted by his past, the portrayal feels heavy-handed at times and undecided in precisely how smart he’s supposed to be. In a scene where the officers are discussing the antlers placed on the victim’s head, Cohle says with his back turned to everyone, “It was a crown,” like a parody of what the demented, sad genius character would do. But there’s no other insight from Cohle on the nature of the crime, no suggestion that he can inhabit the thinking or instincts of a killer, let alone understand their motivations. This particular declarative moment ends up scrambling his character even more, making him incoherent with the Cohle that exists outside of that scene. Harrelson seems to simply be going through the motions, which is not to say his acting is subpar—perhaps it’s more a testament to the lack of dimension in Hart’s character.
True Detective is not without promise, and there are moments that quietly shine through the predictable plotting. Cohle’s nihilism in a Christian small-town in Louisiana could prove to be an interesting device. Ultimately, though, the pilot relies so heavily on the hope we might be taken by its sleight of hand—slowly revealing all of its cards as the hour passes—that the result is a tangled mess of information. For a show such as True Detective to succeed, there has to be far more depth to both Cohle and Hart, the ancillary characters, and the town itself. It needs to trust that its viewers are smart enough to know the old tricks and focus on finding a unique spin on a well-known tale. It’s a show not worth giving up on yet, but the second episode will have to be damn good.