HBO’s True Detective is truly unsettling, not because it’s about the search for a Louisiana serial killer, but because soon enough the search seems almost incidental: a pretext for testing limits and acting out and debating what makes people tick. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), the lead detective on the case, treats the investigation as both a justice-seeking mission and a means of philosophical inquiry. He mutters about faith, doubt, the illusion of morality, and the nature of the human heart, often in Socratic sentences that turn his easygoing partner, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), into an irrelevant audience of one.
Cohle is a loner who lost his wife and daughter during the years when he worked as an undercover drug agent. He has no social life and couldn’t care less if other cops (including Hart) like him. He takes crime-scene notes in a big sketchbook, lives in an unfurnished apartment, and meditates under a crucifix even though he’s a professed nonbeliever. “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” says Cohle, who blasts the devout as dupes who are intellectually “so goddamn frail they’d rather put a coin in a wishing well than buy dinner.” Hart, who’s cheating on his wife but still takes offense at Cohle’s heresy, warns his partner that he’s made a religion of rationality, treats his notebooks like “stone tablets,” and is “incapable of admitting doubt — and that sounds like denial to me.”
True Detective is not fact-based; the title seems more of a shout-out to postwar pulp magazines whose lurid covers promised to violate at least five of the Ten Commandments. Like so many high-end serial-killer stories, including David Fincher’s arty hellscape Se7en and NBC’s measured, mournful Hannibal, the show is intellectualized pulp. A line from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground sums Cohle up, for better and worse: “I swear to you, gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.” True Detective is infected by that same sickness and knows it, and that’s what makes it intriguing. This show’s aspiration to both high and low pleasures is reflected in its heroes. Cohle is the stereotypical suffering artist, a man who couldn’t shut off the torrent of his analytical mind even if he wanted to. Hart’s grinning affability and do-your-job-and-go-home attitude represents an entertainer’s mentality (though his propensity to cheat on his wife — played by Michelle Monaghan, whose accusatory stare could burn a hole through a badge — confirms that he’s grappling with demons of his own). The detectives’ prickly banter evokes NBC’s classic Homicide: Life on the Street, a detective drama that followed up the question “Whodunit?” with “Did God see it?”
HBO is taking a page from FX’s American Horror Story and promising an anthology in which the unit of measure is the season rather than the episode. Like so many of the pay-cable giant’s prestige projects, this one aims to tickle aesthetes with structural and thematic cleverness while also satisfying viewers who just want to watch a couple of ruggedly handsome redneck badasses get in trouble. Creator Nic Pizzolatto, director Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre), and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw treat the story as a sun-drenched film noir set in gator country, but they structure it as a dual-voiced memoir shuffling between the 1995 investigation and its 2012 remembrance by Cohle and Hart, who are talking to investigators who want to reopen the case. In the “present,” Hart has gone mostly bald (which is to say he looks as Harrelson looks now); he smiles a lot, but seems sadder and wiser, and isn’t above making inappropriate wisecracks. (Contrasting himself with his partner, he says, “I’m just an ordinary dude with a big-ass dick.”) Circa-2012 Cohle has the ponytail, scraggly mustache, and haunted eyes of a hippie street preacher; the same events that appear to have seasoned Hart might have driven his partner mad. For all its moments of levity, True Detective’s temperament is defined less by Hart than by Cohle. His drama-queenery is so joyless that Max von Sydow’s blustering painter in Hannah and Her Sisters might find it a bit much. (Cohle says he treats the cross as “a form of meditation. I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.” Put that on your OKCupid profile.)
And yet somehow McConaughey, who has never credibly played an intellectual, much less a tortured one, is furiously convincing here. Even when Cohle lures Hart into illegal and potentially fatal situations, dragging True Detective away from true-crime meticulousness and toward action-thriller nuttiness, you still buy Cohle as a flesh-and-blood man rather than a screenwriter’s conceit. The fourth episode includes a nighttime action sequence staged as an unbroken six-minute tracking shot. McConaughey’s alert reactions ground the sequence in visceral reality and prevent it from devolving into another film-school stunt. It’s about Cohle reconnecting with his old, buried self: the undercover DEA agent who was astonished by his own audacity, and who had a wife and kid and didn’t have to stay “under” for four years but did, for reasons that might appall him if he studied them too closely.
The first four episodes sent out for review become stranger and less “realistic” by the hour, not to mention more stereotypically HBO-like (artfully arranged corpses; drug-thug posturing and handgun-waving; gratuitous T&A) and less concerned with the case that Cohle and Hart are allegedly trying to solve. But the show’s time-shifting structure is so painstaking that even when True Detective spirals into lurid madness — by the end of episode four, I half-expected someone to hand the detectives Colonel Kurtz’s dossier — there still seems to be purpose behind it. Every cut, music cue, and bit of dialogue-as-voice-over contributes to the sense that the show has a grand design, or is at the very least commenting on our need to believe that all things happen for a reason, that it’s not just a swirl of appetite and consequence. This sense of purpose may prove to be another of True Detective’s fake-outs, the darkest one of all.