It’s hard to take True Detective seriously at first, as few shows have demonstrated such a pointed, occasionally overbearing fuck-the-world attitude right off the bat. Cut between the mid ’90s and present-day Louisiana, the series centers around two detectives, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), who, in 1995, investigated and solved the occult-like slaying of Dora Lange, a young prostitute, only to be faced with a similar case 17 years later. Hart’s a God-fearing man who screws around and talks about his family, while Rust is busy trying to shake off years of drug abuse which has pickled him to the point of atheistic bleakness. You’ve probably heard this one before, but HBO’s latest puts issues of identity and the rigors of artifice in front of the mystery at the heart of the story.
The 1995 subplot serves as the more familiar detective yarn, detailing the discovery of the horn-crowned corpse through the investigation into a religious leader known as the Yellow King. As directed by Cary Fukunaga, who recently gave Jane Eyre a ghostly kick, True Detective’s setting is utilized less for its regional flavor than as the ideal location for an earthly perdition. The show’s creator-writer, Nic Pizzolatto, worked on AMC’s The Killing, which is evident in the tired glumness of True Detective’s story, but Fukanaga finds a kind of picked-at beauty in the Southern sprawl, as if he were looking over the dried-up remains of an exquisite corpse.
In this sense, True Detective begins as television’s answer to Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners: a gorgeously moody but inarguably trashy genre work-out. Fukanaga and Pizzolatto, however, smartly embrace the pulpiness of their material. The interactions between Rust and Martin, which is to say between the godless and the faithful, are often brazenly on the nose, but the cast perfectly summons a distinct, macabre theatricality in tone. As grim as the narrative gets, there’s a distinguishable, galvanic sense that the rigidity of the show’s archetypes are being undermined and loosened up by its creators and cast.
The problem is that True Detective seems a little too comfortable within the confines of its genre, always tickling a kind of hard-boiled hysteria, but never diving headfirst into a full-tilt, radical madness. At its wildest moments (Hart’s testosterone-fueled tizzy over his mistress, Rust’s Quaalude deals and almost-tender relationship with Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart), the series feels as frighteningly nervy and furious in its delivery and intent as prime David Lynch. More times than not, however, it defers to an earnest, rote view of bad religion, only marginally enlivened by the appearance of Shea Whigham as a big-tent preacher.
In the present day, Hart is essentially the same person, whereas Rust has calcified into an angry, proudly cynical alcoholic. And it’s Hart that makes a crucial observation during an interview about the Dora Lange case in relation to a new ritualistic murder, as he describes Rust as a man who, after suffering a personal tragedy, believes his job as a detective served as his identity. But Hart, who sees himself as an alpha-dog American father, is even more pent-up and anxious in his daddy-dearest role. The series is riddled with symbols and depictions of men and women as stylized, empty caricatures, from the graffiti on a torn-down church to Hart’s daughters’ drawings to Rust’s sketch of Lange’s body and beer-can figurines, all of which underline the show’s interest in scrutinizing archetypes until the pretenses slowly rot away. The ugly joke that neither Hart nor Rust seem to get, even with hindsight, is that they’re still performing to survive, playing into roles on which they’ve hinged their whole existence, characters which they can no longer withstand.