Recurring Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
True Detective opens with two police officers following up on a case, going way back to 1995. They bring in the two detectives who were assigned to the case, Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, and ask them about it. We jump back to the original case, where Hart meets his new partner and the pair of them investigate a ritualistic killing of a prostitute that seems to have satanic origins. The two of them have a shaky partnership. Cohle has a dark past, suffering from tragedy and diving into undercover narcotics to escape his grief. Being undercover affected him mentally and Hart soon realises he is a fairly unstable man. However, there is no denying that Cohle is a brilliant detective, obsessive over every little detail and dedicated to catching this killer, even when their superiors begin to think that it is best handed over to another task force.
True Detective is the kind of show that you begin watching for the two leads. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson take your fairly standard dark murder mystery and breathe life into it with two powerhouse performances. Rust Cohle is the kind of character that McConaughey can depict really well, yet at the same time, he never feels lazy or dialling in a performance. He takes this character and becomes him, diving into mannerisms and an unhinged state of mind. The moment we are introduced to Rust Cohle, we know that something is not right. If the very fact that recent OSCAR winner McConaughey is playing Cohle isn’t enough evidence, then the bizarre monologues and eerie nature of his gestures will act as confirmation. Whether it is the youthful homicide detective first coming across the mystery or as the cynical, ex-cop being interviewed in the modern day scenes, McConaughey brings something intriguing into the story. Most of the fun comes from wondering where the writers are taking the character and McConaughey performs it, so we are always one plot twist away from the character doing something story-changing. Harrelson holds his own in the acting department, however, as your standard family man. I liked the dynamic between the two. Hart wants to try and keep Cohle grounded, but as the series progresses and we learn more about Hart’s chauvinistic and crumbling marriage, we begin to feel that Cohle is the more stable of the two, at least being self-aware that he is spiralling out of control.
In many ways, the performances are both the good side of the review and the bad. A few episodes in and it becomes very clear that the show is hoping that the two actors are a good enough reason to stick around. Each episode appears to put more stock into character development, rather than story progression. For a long time, we spend each hour-long episode getting to know the characters, have the two actors act to the best of their abilities and then we spend the minimal amount of time, exploring the plot. I never felt the ‘hook’ side of the mystery and, because this series sometimes comes across as a character piece rather than a murder mystery, the first few episodes were a struggle to tune into. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a Matthew McConaughey monologue as much as the next man, but when we are three episodes in and the writers give McConaughey another long-winded speech about his opinion on whatever topic needs dissecting, we begin to roll our eyes. I am not sure if it is padding a slim story, showing off from the cast and crew or simply the director using his secret weapon to its full advantage. All I know is that when I am tuning in to that same shot, no matter how initially glorious it is, I begin to lose my patience with the show.
It’s not even as though the story is bad and needs hiding. While it is nothing I haven’t seen before from this type of show, I still enjoy waiting to see who the killer was. Some of the characters were insanely creepy and the backwoods of Louisiana was an ideal setting. The first shot of Reggie Ledoux is nothing short of terrifying and some of the red herrings were made better by this genuinely creepy atmosphere. When the show needed to dial up the action, it also excelled. The finale, while hitting sinister rather than scary, which would have been a nice touch, is satisfying, introducing the culprit behind this eight episode run and portraying him incredibly well. The highlight of the entire season however was easily the finale of Episode Four. Cohle calls in a favour from a biker gang he used to spy on when undercover and to gain back their faith, he helps them with a raid. There is a massive street action sequence that is essentially one long shot, held for around five minutes. McConaughey is amazing here, handling action well, yet always keeping in touch with Cohle. I imagine a lot of improvisation went into the part, as McConaughey has loads of little gestures that cannot have been scripted, yet it still feels choreographed (in a good way). I was hoping for more of this, but I understand that it is not that type of show.
In conclusion, I wasn’t as taken with this show as everyone else seems to be. I like that bigger actors are heading into TV, but because True Detective seems to lead with that, it felt more forced that something like ‘House of Cards’, which felt more like Underwood fitting Spacey like a glove. I am worried that if this keeps happening, we will be over-saturated with Hollywood stars tackling the small screen. Sure, it’s a nice surprise seeing someone like McConaughey in a show like this, but I rather keep it as a surprise, rather than something that will be happening a lot from here on out. Other smaller beats I weren’t too keen on were Michelle Monaghan’s character being a worthy contender to Cohle and Hart, yet she kept disappearing in a male-orientated show. Other women were pretty distractions, potential victims or red herrings. However, these flaws cannot hide the fact that True Detective is well-made, enjoyable and a welcome addition to HBO.
Final Verdict: McConaughey and Harrelson are phenomenal, although the show feels a little too dependent on them.