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HBO Once Again Has the Best New Show on TV

'True Detective' could be the next 'Breaking Bad'

Michele K. Short/HBO

At a stretch you might guess that “Cohle and Hart” is about a couple of songwriters, but it’s hard to miss the lack of melody or warmth when you run the two names together. So it’s easier for the audience to think of “True Detective”’s duo as McConaughey and Harrelson, two of the smartest and hottest actors around, both of them having turned into so much more than seemed likely when they began. Aren’t they both out of Texas, and wasn’t it McConaughey grinning at a Golden Globe just an hour before “True Detective” began? Hasn’t Woody grown into weathered sour hickory from the dumb sapling in “Cheers”? Harrelson is the man from The Messenger and Rampart. He had that lovely cameo in No Country for Old Men, and he was brilliant as the campaign manager driven mad by Sarah Palin in Game Change. “True Detective” has been promoted on the chemistry of these two actors, and it goes so far as to be constructed in a way that gives you two versions of both men. But take care; these aren’t kindred spirits. The last cops who seemed so far apart were Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in Se7en, and you’ll remember how that ended.

We are in southern Louisiana, just east of Texas, where the country is flat, drab and glassy in the gray heat. A murder has been committed, or perhaps it is just that a body has been found. But as soon as we’re into the police procedural, the show splits apart into two time periods. Seventeen years ago, Cohle and Hart were sent to investigate this corpse, a woman bound, kneeling, and so arranged that antlers seemed to grow out of her head. She had been cut up; she had been tortured; and morbidity was making her gray at the edges. There were odd cones of twigs and foliage nearby. Was it is some cult killing? Cohle and Hart are young, and utterly unalike: Cohle is chilly; he has a kind of clerical severity in his dress; and he can sound like a deranged philosopher. He never smiles. He is the very lean McConaughey we have come to know; but without the humor and the wry fellowship. As for Hart, he is slimmer than today’s Harrelson, but he has a flop of buttery hair and he’s so intent on being a regular guy he tells Cohle to just shut up in the car if all he can utter are his gloomy aphorisms.

But then the show jumps seventeen years forward and the two cops are being interrogated, separately, in offices. Hart is stout, his hair is cropped; he’s the modern Harrelson and he says he hasn’t seen Cohle in ten years. But Cohle looks like someone in prison. His hair is longer and stringy; he seems gaunter, more ruined, but he is still the insolent prophet of mystery. He’s being questioned about something. But he tells the two cops to hurry up and get to the right questions. Hart still seems to be a cop, but there’s every chance that Cohle is shut away for sound reasons.

The rest of the little we know is that the series is called “True Detective,” which seems to refer to an archaic genre, the souped-up versions of brave, smart lawmen on the job, no matter that this has the form and even the situation of one of those Faulkner novels where two characters are lamenting the impact of the past but in so cryptic a way that you don’t quickly understand what it is that might have happened. Moreover, the show is coming to us in eight hour-long episodes, every one of them written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga. Those two are also executive producers in a group that includes McConaughey and Harrelson. It’s enough to make you think that this show has been put together in a special concerted way, and you can discover that Pizzolatto’s history is more as a novelist than a TV executive. As for Fukunaga, he is a young director whose last work was Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Of course, that novel’s a mystery about the past, too, if you care to think about it.

There’s not much else so far. When they were young Cohle lived alone in a bare room with a mattress on the floor, while Hart had a larger, untidy house with children and a wife played by Michelle Monoghan. I can’t imagine she’s in the series just to put meals on the table. But I’m only guessing. Maybe the most striking thing about the heavily advertised pilot for “True Detective” is the show’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Time was when a television show had to let the viewers feel comfortable before the first commercial break: you had a few characters; you knew which ones to like and you trusted the arc of the story. “True Detective” has no commercial breaks, no hint that economic order and narrative neatness are companions; and not the least willingness to help you along. Hart stresses that Cohle is a very good detective and in just one episode I think we’ve seen enough to appreciate the bleak way he looks at a crime scene. No notebook for Cohle. He carries a large black ledger and he writes in it carefully. Other cops call him “the taxman”, and you might have reason to see this younger cop as a kind of keeper of the annals, a metaphorical figure. But he adds drawings, like a child or like Van Gogh. Then you have to wonder how he is in prison or rehab seventeen years later—except that cops are like vets: a lot of them end up wrecks who could kill themselves, just to spare others.

Is this a “Breaking Bad” in the making? On the same Sunday evening, at the Golden Globes, the creator Vince Gilligan thanked the fans of “Breaking Bad,” especially the few who watched the early episodes. I can see that McConaughey and Harrelson might guess they have a lot of shit to get through yet and I can imagine that this curious killing between semi-desert and bayou has a lot to do with the unresolved issues of what innocents used to call the “South.” (Hoping that state of mind would stay there, instead of come creeping through the rest of the country.)  And somehow I suspect Faulkner is a better guideline than Jim Thompson. “True Detective” has the aggressive casualness and dense texture of a novel by a writer who doesn’t care if he’s only ever going to be mid-list, and it has the aging but anxious Harrelson asking himself whether he’s ever going to fathom this ghost McConaughey or get him to smile. AlI I would add is that a lot of these television long-forms are at their best when you (and the people making them maybe) haven’t quite worked out yet where they’re going.