“I have literally no interest in serial killers,” novelist Nic Pizzolatto told me while discussing True Detective,” the new HBO drama series he created that debuts Sunday night at 9.
This seems a funny thing to say, given that “True Detective” is the story of two Louisiana cops, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, investigating a serial killer case that spans 17 years. Even with “Dexter” gone, TV is awash in serial killer melodrama — some of it great, like NBC’s “Hannibal,” some of it stupid and self-congratulatory like FOX’s “The Following” — and “True Detective” lets McConaughey stand around grisly crime scenes tossing out phrases like "meta psychotic" and "paraphilic love map,” sounding very much like other fictional profilers.
But the more you watch “True Detective” — or, rather, the longer you remain under its hypnotic spell — the easier it is to understand Pizzolatto’s point. This is a show about duality and hidden identities (the opening title sequence features an array of ordinary images laid over other much darker ones), and one that's ultimately much, much less interested in the serial killer than it is in the two men chasing him.
And those men, as written by Pizzolatto and played by McConaughey and Harrelson, are riveting.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that McConaughey will win every award for which he is eligible, both because he is a Movie Star stooping to work in television, and because he is jaw-droppingly great. McConaughey has reinvented himself in the last few years, using his leading man swagger in service to each performance, rather than a substitute for one. Even if nothing else about “True Detective” worked — and so much of it works spectacularly — McConaughey would be worth the price of admission. (Harrelson’s terrific in his own right, and could also win many trophies if he’s willing to position himself as a supporting actor, even though they’re both clear leads.)
The action in “True Detective” is split between 1995, when McConaughey’s Rust Cohle(*) and Harrelson’s Marty Hart are first assigned to a case that Cohle takes as the work of a serial killer, and 2012, when the two are separately interviewed by a pair of younger detectives about a new case that may be connected. Hart, who presents as the more straight-forward member of the team, appears roughly the same in each era, other than his hairline. Cohle, though, has disintegrated. In the ‘90s scenes, we learn an incredible string of tragedies have turned him into an empty shell that has taught itself how to still act human when needed; by 2012, he’s given up on any pretense at all, and resembles a version of Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” who stared too long into the void. (The stringy wig and droopy mustache McConaughey wears in the 2012 scenes deserve an award of their own.)
(*) Like many elements of “True Detective,” Cohle’s name (it’s short for Rustin) seems almost comically over-the-top when you first encounter it, before quickly becoming a fundamental match for the character and the material. Of course this wreck of a man goes by Rust.
There’s an eerie calm to McConaughey’s performance. He clearly understands that the only proper approach to this giant ball of crazy fire he’s been handed is to underplay him. The less he moves, and the more softly he speaks, the more powerful and troubling the performance becomes, and the easier it gets to go along with one of his many monologues about the meaningless of human existence.
"I have seen the finale of thousands of lives, man,” he announces in one of these speeches. “Each one is so sure of their realness, that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose, meaning, so certain that they were more than a biological puppet, when truth wills out, and everybody sees once the strings are cut."
Now, that reads like the sort of thing your freshman roommate announces at 2:37 a.m. during an all-night cramming session for a philosophy midterm. But as delivered so calmly and authoritatively by McConaughey, it resonates.
McConaughey’s stillness is a perfect match for the frustrated energy of Harrelson as Hart.(**) Hart considers himself an easy-going family man with all the answers to life and the job, but we learn in time that there are many dark ripples beneath his placid surface, and that Cohle may in fact be the saner — or, at least, more self-aware — half of the partnership. Hart’s problem is that he’s in denial about who he really is; Cohle’s problem is that he knows too much about who he is and what he’s capable of.
(**) McConaughey and Harrelson are so well-matched physically, and such good friends in real life, that it’s strange they haven’t worked together more, especially in any script that requires one of them to have a brother. Both have so much experience playing both heroes and lunatics that I can imagine a version of “True Detective” where each steps easily into the other man’s role.
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com