Although its particular virtues are not insubstantial, we may someday look back on HBO's True Detective as the moment cable television really got it right. It's not quite, to use a verboten term, a game-changer, but its serial miniseries format -- a "quality TV" gloss on American Horror Story -- has the potential to synthesize the best of both worlds. Its eight episodes (four of which were available in advance) give Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrrelson, as a pair of Louisiana detectives investigating a murder with shades of the occult, room to stretch out, while the fixed creative team -- creator Nic Pizzolatto wrote every episode, and Cary Fukunaga directed them all -- gives it a unified look and tone, and no doubt eased the transition for actors unfamiliar with the rotating stable of directors employed in typical series production.
The results, as seen in tonight's premiere, can be stunning. Even by the standards of his recent creative resurgence, McConaughey is astonishing, especially in the present-day scenes that frame the narrative. The show's structuring conceit is that Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) have been called in to replace the damaged records of their 17-year-old case, for reasons that any viewer with a passing familiarity with the genre will guess almost instantly. They've both moved away from policework, but where Hart looks much the same, barring the loss of most of his hair, Cohle has gone from a meticulous, carefully groomed figure to a functioning alcoholic with a stringy ponytail and bushy mustache. The present-day scenes, with the former detectives grilled by two humorless, nearly silent African-American investigators, consist almost solely of locked-off shots of the actors sitting in chairs -- which in McConaughey's case is a license to go to town. He makes more out of smoking a cigarette against his interrogators' objections than some actors do of an entire performance. (Coming soon, his one-man show: A Cigarette and a Coffee Mug.)
The 1995 scenes, unfortunately, are less even, more given to stock signifiers of moral pseudocomplexity. Pizzolatto told Alan Sepinwall that he has "no interest in serial killers," which would be great if he hadn't opted to make a show about one. (Would that his lack of interest had led to more novel subject matter than halfhearted execution.) In the same interview, Pizzolatto cited Errol Morris and Mike Leigh as touchstones, by which he likely means The Thin Blue Line and Naked: You can see the former in the interview-room tete-a-tetes, and the latter in the increasingly warped monologues in which Cohle lays out his philosophy of life. To those I'd add Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost films, evoked in the ominous helicopter shots of the rural mid-South and the complications that arise once the state's political leaders get wind that the murder may have "Satanic" overtones.
There are signs in later episodes that Pizzolatto has established a familiar template so that he can depart from it, luring in viewers -- and establishing a core audience -- before spinning off in increasingly odd directions. But you can't help wishing he'd take the training wheels off and focus on the elements that make True Detective a potentially great show, and not just a superlatively well-executed but familiar one.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
True Detective is not fact-based; the title seems more of a shout-out to postwar pulp magazines whose lurid covers promised to violate at least five of the Ten Commandments. Like so many high-end serial-killer stories, including David Fincher's arty hellscape Se7en and NBC’s measured, mournful Hannibal, the show is intellectualized pulp.
Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club
The show promoted in HBO's splashy ads and trailers is a dark, pulpy thriller... [b]ut True Detective turns out to be an unwieldy contraption built out of spare parts from Justified, Hannibal, and Michael Mann's complete filmography. There are occasional thrills, but they're subordinate to the philosophical musing.
Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
Many of the best detective stories are as much about the detectives as about the mechanics of whatever case they've caught, or have been caught in. Even when they're not about the detectives, they're about the characters the detectives meet, their jostling passage through a moral universe.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
True Detective comes alive in the wide-open spaces, in its spare depictions of bayous and abandoned churches, tent revivals and littered parking lots. Yet this mystery may be most transfixing when its characters are trapped in small spaces. The scenes that had the biggest impact on me took place during interrogations and conversations, when the actors were displaying the kind of psychological intensity and nuance you find only in the very best dramas.
James Poniewozik, Time
What distinguishes it is that it's not about the bodies or the killer (at least, in the four episodes I've seen) but about the investigators–and about the soul, morality and God, or the lack thereof.
Willa Paskin, Slate
The world of True Detective is dark.... But True Detective is never quite depressing. There is something invigorating about watching a show this searching. Its mood, its details, its performances, its genre pleasures are so exacting and exceptional that it can be fearlessly eggheady.
Andy Greenwald, Grantland
Men make the world, and women -- when they're not comforting their straying husbands with sympathy sex or being murdered and abandoned in fields with antlers affixed to their heads -- have to deal with it. Preferably offscreen. You will accept these things or get out of the way.