By Adam Shater
“True Detective,” HBO’s latest original show, aired its fifth episode this past Sunday, adding another thrilling chapter to what has become one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the season.
“True Detective” stars actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, two detectives investigating a mysterious murder seventeen years ago, while recalling details about the case to police officers in the present.
The premise of the show does seem pretty simple—-two detectives searching for a serial killer. But “True Detective,” like almost every other HBO original series, takes great strides in separating itself from the stereotypical detective drama. The writing, which is done primarily by the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto, is absolutely astounding.
On one level, the actual murder mystery of the show is constructed beautifully, giving viewers just enough hints in order to draw their own conclusions at this point in the season. But on another level, there are some truly deep, and often ominous, monologues given by McConaughey’s Cohle on existence and death.
In fact, the most intense, moving scenes of “True Detective” are these monologues where McConaughey stares blankly ahead while talking about things like human consciousness. Along with the script, “True Detective” has a really original atmospheric sense to it, unlike anything else on television. The flashback scenes have a very reserved feel to them, almost as though something is bubbling under the surface of the narrative, waiting to emerge. While there is definitely action mixed into the show, most notable a six-minute single shootout, the tense, somber tone of the show seems to be its trademark.
The entire first season has been directed by Cary Fukunaga, which has definitely helped “True Detective” maintain this abstract feel as a show. Looking ahead to future seasons, “True Detective” has a chance to separate itself further in terms of originality because of the format of the series of a whole. Pizzolatto has said that “True Detective” is an anthology series, meaning that each season will feature a completely new plot, characters, and setting than any of the previous seasons.
Both McConaughey and Harrelson’s performances in this first season have been almost universally acclaimed by fans and critics alike as well. What makes both the performances, and McConaughey’s in particular, so mesmerizing is that both actors play a their character from seventeen years in the past—through flashbacks—and their present day selves recalling events from their investigation.
McConaughey, who plays Rustin “Rust” Cohle, a sharp, introspective detective in the flashbacks, undergoes an absurd transformation for his present day character, complete with a disheveled ponytail and unkempt moustache.
While Bryan Cranston was assumed to be the front-runner for the next Emmy Awards (for his role as Walter White in “Breaking Bad’s” near flawless final season) McConaughey may have pulled even. He strikes a startling balance between brilliance and moroseness in both timelines his character is in, and his delivery of the exceptionally well written lines adds yet another dimension to “True Detective.”
Harrelson, who is probably overshadowed by McConaughey in the scenes they share, has done a superb job as well. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a Cohle’s partner. He doesn’t have as much to work with within his character, who is a much more by-the-book detective, but he gives an understated performance that is peppered with instances of menace and intensity.
As the first season’s gone on, though, he begins to reveal a darker, more aggressive side more and more that may give him free reign in one of the upcoming episodes to really flesh out his character.
McConaughey and Harrelson making the jump from movies to starring in a television show comes at a time when other stars seem to be doing so as well.
Kevin Spacey, who has won Academy Awards for his roles in the movies “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty,” recently made the jump to star on the Netflix produced show “House of Cards,” which is a political drama. Don Cheadle, another Oscar-nominated actor, returned to television two years ago for the first time since 2003 to star in the Showtime drama House of Lies, and Halle Berry is slated to star in a Steven Spielberg produced sci-fi show that will premiere on CBS on July 2.