True Detective is not subtle, despite its darkly glossy look. It’s the kind of joint where everyone speaks slowly but still is hard to understand, where unexpected (and very good) music selections do their best to distract from the fact that what you’re watching is not so original. When the third episode ends and you’re still waiting for dramatic payoff, all the slow burning begins to seem more like flatlining.
The series’ premise straddles two storylines, one in 1995, as Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) unravel the threads of an occult murder, and the other in the present, as the two men recount their experiences for detectives trying to solve a similar case. In both plots, True Detective is pretty much a two-man show, showcasing the interactions of two actors who seem to have charisma written into their DNA.
McConaughey and Harrelson make for an oddly watchable pair, neither opposing nor complementary but positioned at acute angles. As Hart, Harrelson’s shambling affability is bolstered by his status as the family man, then subverted just as quickly as the façade cracks. By contrast, McConaughey’s Cohle smolders and glares, dropping bits of juvenile philosophy along with fragments of his tragic past that only his partner’s lovely wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) seems truly to appreciate.
The revelation of these two men’s pasts and proclivities proceeds in lurches that are alternately predictable and intriguing. Cohle is the stranger of the two, an opaque assemblage of provocative details — a lost daughter, years spent undercover. His mystery echoes the enigma he seeks to explain, but his continued lack of coherence runs him dangerously close to seeming like a pastiche of repurposed clichés.
The writing is similarly impenetrable, scattering excellent one-liners (watching Cohle saunter back to the car, Hart asks in exasperation, “Who walks that slow?”) among exchanges between characters that sound more like platitudes than convincing interactions. You get the sense that writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga care less about mechanics of the detective genre than whatever oddities they can instill into it; this interest bears occasional fruit in moments that provide long-awaited relief from the show’s prosaic backdrop, as when Cohle develops poetic hallucinations. Ostensibly the result of too much time doing hard drugs, these images are eloquent and elegiac (fiery clouds spreading across the sky, a murder of crows that shifts and spirals), even if their importance is bluntly telegraphed through the Cohle’s Nihilism 101 worldview.
It’s a worldview that finds apt expression in the gentle apocalypse of the Louisiana landscape, where the duo encounters a rogues’ gallery of supporting characters — the golden-hearted whore, the unsettling itinerant preacher, the crusty-but-benign police chief — who are engaging but unsurprising. Fukunaga leans heavily on the moodiness that imbued his Jane Eyre with such invigorating intensity, but with a host of other recent TV shows — The Killing (for which Pizzolatto wrote a couple of episodes), The Following, Top of the Lake, The Bridge — using unusual settings and aesthetics to enliven detective procedurals, the result is less exceptional.
With such a range of strangeness now available on TV, True Detective often seems less atmospheric than conspicuously shot on location. The show’s sense of foreboding is conjured primarily through Adam Arkapaw’s choice photography and an unvaried rhythm of cuts, such that each shot arrives heavy on its feet. Whether it’s the interior of the police station — cops standing underneath a tangle of lights like a cubist re-interpretation of the Washington Post office in All the President’s Men — or a landscape that gives equal weight to the sky and the ground, the shots tend to be long in terms of both framing and duration, which deemphasizes any sense of movement to dreamlike effect. Without any disruptions to this oh-so-careful deliberateness, True Detective turns static before the first episode is done.
This raises the question: is True Detective understated and ominous or simply inert, like an episode of Law & Order: SVU that goes on for much too long? It certainly looks like another laurel for HBO, with its movie stars and creative pedigree and undeniable production values. But it hits that mark too easily, too well, and so ends up in thrall to another formula besides that of the procedural. As a prestige show, it’s so serious, portentous, and polished, it’s not very much fun at all, so intent on wrapping its package in money and style that it forgets to put anything inside.