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True Detective - First episode reviewed

True Detective

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

FROM first minute to last, the opening episode of HBO’s new heavyweight police drama True Detective was a class act.

Boasting man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the lead roles, penned by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary (Sin Nombre/Jane Eyre) Fukanaga, this arrived with impeccable credentials. It did not disappoint.

True, the idea of a serial killer with occult leanings, who meticulously creates his crime scenes like a work of macabre art, is nothing new (think “Hannibal”: as TV’s most recent example) but this, so far, is more interested in character than anything procedural (although it repeatedly dropped hints of what might be to come).

Hence, the first hour was all about getting to know the two enigmatic characters at the centre of the story: McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Harrelson’s Martin Hart – both damaged men in their own ways, yet two opposite souls.

Entitled The Long Bright Dark, the first episode picked up as both Cohle and Hart began to recount the tale of one particular case they worked on some years ago to two fellow detectives in the ‘present day’.

It then flashed back (where it spent most of its time) to the key events in that case, beginning with the discovery of a naked female body bound to a tree with antlers ceremonially placed on her head. The victim had been tortured and raped. And she had been held captive for some time.

By the end of the episode, the assumption in the present day was that the case had been solved back in ’95. So, why then had a copycat killing suddenly occurred. Could it be the work of the same man? And if so, how could that be so?

McConaughey’s response to this notion was “why don’t you ask the right fucking questions?” And in that instant, we were left thirsting for more.

As slow burning as elements of the first hour were, the carrots had been well and truly dangled by the end of proceedings. Why had these two detectives fallen out? What makes Cohle tick? What were the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death? How many more murders will there be? Who are the suspects? And why are both men – now clearly even more world weary and sceptical than when they started out – now being interviewed about every minute detail of their original case and, it would seem, their relationship?

Fukanaga’s direction, aided by T Bone Burnett’s score, layered on the atmospherics but never at the expense of performance. This had a creepy, sometimes ethereal edge, but it remained grounded thanks to the spectacular work of its leading men.

McConaughey arguably has the showier of the roles… his Cohle emerging as a mystery that might not be all that likeable, yet someone who has been beaten down by life. Harrelson, in contrast, is struggling as a father who has seen all the bad that his world can offer, yet he is the warmer presence. There is an optimism to him that’s in stark contrast to Cohle’s pessimism (as evidenced during a terrific to and fro in the car in which Cohle laid out his bleak view of humanity and why it should ‘do the decent thing’ and stop making children).

It’s in the dialogue between these two that the show really excels. McConaughey is a dry presence, yet driven to find the truth, whereas Harrelson is somewhat more charismatic, particularly in his put-downs of his partner. They are already a terrific partnership to be around.

And while the case itself has yet to really get going, there’s more than enough to keep you returning for more. Indeed, in just its early days, True Detective would seem to have an embarrassment of riches at its disposal. And, as the promotional materials for Sky Atlantic so often suggest, ‘not all television is created equal’. In True Detective‘s case, this is on another level. It’s utterly compelling.

True Detective airs on Sky Atlantic on Saturday nights from 9pm