Actors invigorate tired detective genre

It feels like every time I sit down to write about a new TV show, it’s some variation on the same story: two detectives, usually straight white men, attempt to catch a vicious serial killer while struggling with problems in their own personal lives. Last year was particularly rich with these types of shows, between NBC’s “Hannibal,” Fox’s “The Following,” BBC America’s “Broadchurch,” and more, which range in quality from very good to terrible. So of course one of the first new shows of 2014 is HBO’s “True Detective,” yet another serial killer story.

Thankfully, the show’s lack of originality in its premise is more than made up for in its execution. “True Detective” is a stylish, magnetic story, one absolutely worth your time if you can get past the fatigue over a well-worn genre.

“True Detective” is an anthology show in the vein of “American Horror Story,” so each season will feature an entirely new cast and plotline. That means that we know the story’s mysteries will be solved by the end of the season, and it also means that HBO was able to entice some impressive personnel to sign on for the limited engagement.

First and foremost, the show has two bona-fide movie stars for leads in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, our grizzled detectives. HBO also managed to sign crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto and film director Cary Joji Fukunaga for the entire eight-episode run. It’s rare to have such a consistent, creative team in American TV, but it is extremely effective here in establishing the show’s tone, making each episode seem like a part of a whole.

I won’t spend much time describing the plot. With only a few episodes under the show’s belt, it’s basically what you’d expect from a serial killer story albeit in the somewhat atypical setting of rural Louisiana. The only wrinkle the show adds to that plot is its flashback structure: The investigation in question takes place in 1995, but we also see McConaughey and Harrelson’s characters interviewed about those events in the present day, years after some mysterious falling out destroyed their partnership. The show spends the majority of its time in the first time period, so the flashback structure mostly works as a clever way to spice up what could have been dry voice-over narration, but it also helps to enhance the show’s sense of foreboding. We get hints of what is to come, and it doesn’t sound good.

So if the plot isn’t anything special, at least so far, what makes the show worth checking out? Simply put: McConaughey and Harrelson. Both men give tremendous performances here, which manage to elevate the show above the plot’s clichés it sometimes relies on.

They’re both cast slightly against type here, with Harrelson as the straight-arrow family man and McConaughey as his recluse partner, but they both sink deeply into their roles, giving performances as good as anything they’ve done in their film appearances. McConaughey is particularly good, playing the absurdly-named Rustin “Rust” Cohle, a man broken by a tragedy in his past and still struggling to piece himself back together. Pizzolatto’s scripts give Cohle some pseudo-philosophical monologues that could be laughable in the hands of a lesser actor, but McConaughey makes them both mesmerizing and meaningful.

True Detective is at its best during those monologues and other similar moments, when it nails its chilly tone perfectly. Fukunaga, best known for the 2011 version of “Jane Eyre” starring Mia Wasikowska, is instrumental to that tone, and he is aided by music from seemingly ubiquitous producer “T Bone” Burnett.

The show spends a surprising amount of time with McConaughey and Harrelson in their car, driving from one location to the next. While on many other shows that would seem like a tedious waste of time, in this case it is an excellent showcase for the two men’s chemistry.

They are apparently close friends in real life, and reportedly agreed to this project primarily to work with each other, and it shows. Together, they make for one of the most engaging pairings on television right now. Hopefully subsequent episodes will improve on the show’s storytelling issues, but for now the two lead performances are enough to make it worth watching.

Unfortunately, “True Detective” doesn’t avoid some of the serial-killer genre’s most egregious problems.

As is the case with many similar shows, the female characters can mostly be split into two categories: murder victims and prostitutes. The only regular female cast member is Michelle Monaghan, who is entirely underserved by her role as Harrelson’s nagging wife. The show appears to be trying to say something meaningful about modern masculinity, and may well succeed in that goal, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t also have fully-formed female characters.

If you’re interested in a show that deviates a little more from the genre’s clichés, I’d recommend you seek out FX’s “The Bridge,” which takes place at the US-Mexico border and uses that setting to explore issues unseen elsewhere on TV, or Sundance’s “Top of the Lake,” or Jane Campion’s “Australian.” “True Detective” has its fair share of problems, but between McConaughey and Harrelson’s performances and the promise that it will wrap up its mystery by the end of the season, it makes a promising first impression. If you aren’t yet tired of diabolical serial killers and detectives with messy personal lives, give “True Detective” a shot.

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