For anyone who feared that the “Breaking Bad” finale and the upcoming final season of “Mad Men” may be signaling the beginning of the end for TV’s current golden age, tonight’s debut of “True Detective” starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson suggests otherwise.
From the many, many trailers HBO has released for “True Detective,” it wouldn’t be difficult to confuse it for any police procedural on the networks. (One of the key pieces of imagery in the first episode calls NBC’s “Hannibal” to mind.) But the more you dig into “True Detective,” the more you see just how different it is.
The structure of “True Detective” episodes is what will strike people as the most obvious difference. The story of Louisiana state police investigators Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Martin Hart, played by real-life best friends McConaughey and Harrelson, respectively, will only last eight episodes. We don’t mean that’s how long the first season is; when the season’s done, the story is over. If there is a second season, it will follow different characters with another story. Setting the story within such a finite space means no wheel-spinning during the season and no cliffhanger at the end of it.
But just because writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga — both worked on every episode — have a complex mystery involving a potentially cult-related serial murder to tell and not a lot of time to do it, that doesn’t mean that they’re in a rush. “True Detective” takes its time with the mystery aspects to slow down and focus on these two men. Cohle is new to the force, with a dark, officially redacted past, and Hart supposedly has everything he could want with a wife (Michelle Monaghan). The drama plays out on two timelines, 17 years apart. The main investigation into the murder of a young prostitute takes place in 1995 and is intercut with interview footage of Cohle and Hart in 2012.
The split timeline, in addition to giving the earlier events a weightier feel because of how it affected the men in the present, provides an intriguing platform for McConaughey, who, continuing his string of career-best performances, is on fire here. In ’95, Cohle is a haunted man, looking for some sanity in a world that, by his account, has lost its mind. Seventeen years down the road, he’s a burnt-out bum, working at a bar, who has embraced the darkest aspects of life as pure fact. Harrelson delivers as well, providing a more grounded foil to Cohle’s existential crises.
While the enthralling mystery around Dora Lange’s murder is enough to bring in casual TV viewers looking for pulpy thrills, the dark character work by McConaughey and Harrelson is ultimately the show’s main focus, its greatest strength and what propels it into the ranks of today’s best dramas.