True Detective Review: One Hell Of A Hard Boiled Mystery

Do we really need another series based on a serial killer on TV? Isn't it overkill? Some critics have gone so far as to call the recent string of dramas that explore said subject a rash but, of course, that would be implying that the murder mystery wasn't a popular genre well before the medium was invented, not to mention that those that have popped up are, well, bad. On the contrary, the 'rash' has included several excellent serial killer dramas with Hannibal and The Fall even making our year end lists. Saying there are too many murder mysteries is like saying there are too many police procedurals... okay, there are too many procedurals but that doesn't mean you take it out on the good ones. Especially when they are as good as the recent crop, which now includes HBO's impeccable True Detective. Can you have too much of a good thing?

True Detective tracks an odd-couple partnership of two officers in the Louisiana State Police, Matthew McConaughey's Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson's Detective Martin Hart, before (well, during) and after (technically, still during) they investigate a rather grisly murder that may or may nor be linked to others. The story is told so well in the first installment, "The Long Bright Dark," it feels like a complete work in itself as well as leaves you wanting more. Immediately. And I said 'before and after' because creator Nic Pizzolatto has structured the mystery in a way where events of the past are essentially narrated to us by the men who were irrevocably changed by case. Even though it's tonally opposite, the storytelling device reminded me a lot of District 9 except the drama's (half-)documentary approach seems to not only serve as reflection on events past or a simple framing device but something different altogether. The start of something new. Why are these men being interviewed?

True Detective HBO

More than anything, the pilot for True Detective feels like a true-crime doc like The Thin Blue Line, if the filmmakers doing the interviews were actually just another pair of policemen (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) and the re-enactments were shot by an Emmy Award winning cinematographer (Adam Arkapaw) working under the winner of the Sundance Film Festival's award for Best Directing (Cary Fukunaga). Oh, and if it also lead to the reopening of the case. Although, I didn't get that far having only seen the one installment. Did Cohle and Hart get it wrong? Is that why one is so shattered and the other tight-lipped? What happened to this dead girl? Or all the other girls' names, details, and clues that start popping up over the course of the narrative. The pulp series demands attention, reminding me a lot of David Fincher's Zodiac and the way that he fills every frame with a sense of obsession and dread. Of anxiety and paranoia. And all underscored by great music from occasional Coen Bros. collaborator T. Bone Burnett.

I know I've already been glowing about HBO's new series but I still haven't touched on the best thing about True Detective which is the acting. The ensemble is well cast and I'm sure they'll do good work here (in particular, I hope Michelle Monaghan is given a lot more to do than be doting wife), however, I've only seen the first episode and it's squarely focused on these two men, Cohle and Hart. With the run he's, on it probably comes as no surprise that McConaughey delivers a stellar performance as Detective Rust Cohle, an obsessive man who spouts nihilistic lyricisms as well as battles the bottle because of his tragic past. And this is all before the ritualistic murder of a young girl shatters his somewhat hyper-controlled world and turns him into the 'after picture,' if you will. Harrelson is just as good in the more understated role of Detective Marty Hart, a family man who provides some comic relief to balance out his partner's incessant pessimism, not that he doesn't have a few secrets of his own.

In this world, I'm sure everyone's got their fair share. All eight episodes of the anthology series (if there were to be another season, the setting, characters and case would change) were written by Pizzolatto and directed by Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) and I can't say how that rare feat will turn out in the end but "The Long Bright Dark" was compelling piece of hard boiled fiction. I'm excited to see what True Detective has hidden in the next seven episodes, especially with suitably mysterious and/or existential titles like "The Locked Room" and "The Secret Fate of All Life."

True Detective premieres Sunday, January 12 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO. Created by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, the series stars Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles, Alexandra Daddario, Elizabeth Reaser and Kevin Dunn.