“True Detective,” an eight-part crime drama premiering on HBO Sunday night, is a beguiling and moody mess, a narcotic with nearly no addictive effects. It fixates on the familiar, sullen murkiness similar to recent procedurals (“The Killing” and “Broadchurch,” for example) and adds several more layers of its own artistic yet unfulfilling murk. Early on, one of the main characters, played by Matthew McConaughey, asks a prostitute if she can score him some quaaludes. “I don’t sleep,” he explains. Likewise, “True Detective” comes to us with the same mumbly, bloodshot fatigue about it.
The story is built around the recollections of two men (played by Woody Harrelson and McConaughey) who reach back 17 years to provide details of a serial-killer case they worked on together as Louisiana state police detectives. The flashbacking is not as complicated as it might seem at first, especially considering how appreciative modern TV watchers can be of non-linear narrative.
It’s 2012 and Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey) are called in to provide videotaped accounts of their investigation into the murder of a prostitute named Dora Lange, whose body was found tied to a tree in rural, boggy Vermilion Parish in January 1995. (A mention is made early on that the original case files were ruined in a hurricane.)
Curiously, the best acting in “True Detective” happens in this static environment, as Hart and Cohle just sit and talk separately in isolation, rather than in the backbone scenes from the time they spent together pursuing the case and trying (unsuccessfully, it seems) to relate to one another. It’s remarkable, in a series so preoccupied with its evocative Southern surroundings, that the telling can so handily outdo the showing.
But that’s precisely what happens here: As “True Detective” drearily marches through the first four episodes made available to critics, I’m drawn to the parts where McConaughey simply sits at a table in a storeroom full of file boxes and old computers and talks to a video camera, dragging on cigarette after cigarette.
McConaughey and Harrelson both deliver strong and coolly controlled performances, overcoming hurdles as minor as the wigs and facial hair they don to distinguish the passage of time and as major as the terse, overly literary dialogue provided by the show’s creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto.
Pizzolatto is an award-winning fiction writer, but it’s unfortunately easy to tell that “True Detective” is his first TV series. The intent is clear — “True Detective” is meant to be a deeper and more ruminative exploration of the crime procedural — and you can see why HBO was drawn to the idea. Sullen, troubled detectives obsessed with fancifully disturbed serial killers are still where it’s at. (Louisiana is also where it’s at, always it seems: First “True Blood,” then “Treme” and now “True Detective”; throw in “American Horror Story: Coven” and the recent “Duck Dynasty” flap and we’re well within our rights to ask, as TV viewers, how much more of this mumbo-gumbo we’re expected to eat. Even with the tax breaks to film there, it’s time to set a show someplace else.)
Harrelson’s Hart is a riff on the good-ol’-boy law enforcer — a self-professed family man who justifies his philandering as a necessary stress release; McConaughey’s Cohle is a cerebral, enigmatic Texan who transferred to the Louisiana state police and brought his demons with him.
When Hart and Cohle arrive at the crime scene, Dora’s nude body is posed in a kneeling, prayerful position toward the tree, her head facing down and adorned with a crown of rosebush thorns and buck antlers. (Once again a crime drama has announced its artistic intentions with the beaten-senseless cliche of killers who craftily display their murder victims with attendant clues of symbology, fetish objects and quasi-religious folklore.) Hart sees only the disgusting horror of it; Cohle sees a sick brilliance, the work of a “meta-psychotic,” he announces. “This is his vision — her body is a paraphilic love map.” It’s up to Harrelson to provide the Deputy Dawg-inflected versions of do-whut-now? in response.
In this regard, Hart and Cohle are not different enough from the many pairs of mismatched, fictional inspectors who preceded them. In a typical exchange that probably looks better on Pizzolatto’s computer screen than it does on the TV screen, the two men are leaving the coroner’s office and Cohle observes of the small town they’re in: “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“I just want you to stop saying odd [stuff],” Hart says. “Like you ‘smell a psychosphere’ or you’re in someone’s faded memory of a town. Just stop.”
“Well, given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forgo it on your account,” Cohle replies. (It’s to McConaughey’s great credit that he can make 90 percent of his character’s dialogue work as well — and sometimes mesmerizingly — as it does.)
“True Detective” is far more concerned with detectives than it is with crime solving. As Hart and Cohle follow leads, the show is really about their private crises — stirring up old hurts and memories in the present day about stuff that went down two decades ago. Besides hair loss, Hart seems little-changed since the events of 1995, whereas Cohle seems much worse for wear. You want to know how he got that way.
The problem is that any show calling itself “True Detective” (which brings to mind old crime magazines at the drugstore newsstand) very much depends on the binding material that is the murder case that needs to be solved. Instead of paying attention to clues, you begin to entertain more absurd theories and twists: Could Hart or Cohle be the killer? Could Hart and Cohle be split personalities of the same guy?
Soon enough, you don’t care all that much about Dora Lange — or who her killer might be. Absent this desire and lost in the details, the viewer’s mind begins to wander amid the show’s heavy atmospherics: the devil-worship undertones, the customary T-Bone Burnett soundtrack, the usual sweaty languor. In its better moments, “True Detective” feels like a fever dream, but mostly it’s just groggy.
(one hour, first of eight parts) premieres
Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.