By Benjamin Lucas
It isn’t clear what story HBO’s True Detective is telling until the last few minutes of its premiere. After doling out an hour of information, it drops an unsettling question mark, ripping open the old wounds of two battle-worn detectives and the dilapidated Louisiana town they inhabit. While True Detective indulges in more than a few procedural clichés – the hardboiled sleuth, the introspective monologue about the evils of mankind, the gruesome killings – it never revels in them. The show is as wary as its central characters.
We jump from present day to 1995 as Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) drive out to a cornfield to investigate the scene of Dora Kelly Lange’s brutal, ritualistic murder. She has cult symbols painted on her back and a set of deer antlers attached to her head. Rust, seemingly unfazed, opens his massive ledger and gets to work.
“People out here, it’s like they don’t even know the outside world exists. Might as well be living on the moon,” Rust muses at the end of the day. The backwoods setting is utilized to great effect – it’s easy to lose yourself in a murder while living somewhere this isolated and barren. This is especially true for someone who can’t sleep and suffers from debilitating alcoholism. While we aren’t given much of Rust’s backstory yet, it is clear that the years have taken something away from him.
Meanwhile, Marty is a family man with two daughters and a loving wife. On occasion he’ll pass out drunk in the living room, but overall he’s much more stable than his pill-popping, unraveled partner (although, then again, most people are).
In the present day, he’s dressed-up, successful and more than willing to put his years with Rust behind him in the wake of a falling-out in 2002. Harrelson does as good of a job as the rest of the show’s big-name cast. His profanity-ridden rapport with McConaughey is always watchable, even with the latter constantly stealing the show out from under everyone else.
Rust is something of a genius when it comes to investigating, but Marty is quick to shut him up once he starts off on his philosophical tangents. It’s certainly fascinating from an outsider’s perspective, but it is hard to hang around someone all day when he describes the world as a “giant gutter floating in outer space.” The dialogue here is flowery, but McConaughey disappears into the role so effortlessly that it never rings false or distracts from the more grounded tone of the show.
The actual procedural elements, sadly, are not nearly as interesting. The show mostly relegates them to the background, as it is more about the people doing the investigating than the investigation itself. We learn early on that Lange was a prostitute, and a trip to a sleazy sports bar leads Rust to her convicted ex-husband – but not before making a drug deal with one of her coworkers. This is all written and directed perfectly well, but it never rises above anything we’ve seen before. A great chunk of the pilot is busy establishing the show’s deep southern setting; perhaps room for a more compelling, immersive mystery will reveal itself later on.
I enjoy the look of True Detective. The Louisiana backdrop provides every speck of grit you would find from a greasy inner-city locale.
It’s easy to believe that bizarre murders can occur in the Deep South, where long stretches of fields can go unmonitored by the area’s tiny population. That the show stays within the realm of possibility makes even its most familiar elements disquieting and somewhat spooky. Those tired of the preposterousness of network procedurals will find True Detective a breath of fresh air.