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Sure, "Game of Thrones" is fantastic. But beyond that, the cupboard is shockingly bare for HBO in the drama department, especially with "Boardwalk Empire" (underrated, and will be missed) and "The Newsroom" (uneven, but with flashes of brilliance) ending this year.
Lucky for us (and HBO), "True Detective" is arriving at just the right time. The star power of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a mismatched pair of homicide cops might get you in the door, but once you're in, this quietly riveting crime drama grabs hold of you and doesn't let go.
We're only three episodes in, but here are five reasons why we're already thinking "True Detective" might someday earn a spot alongside HBO's all-time greats.
1. The mystery is beside the point.
On the surface, "True Detective" follows Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) as they investigate a ritualistic murder in 1995. It also flashes forward to 2012, where Cohle and Hart are being questioned by cops about the case… which may not be closed after all.
But creator Nic Pizzolatto (who wrote for "The Killing," but don't hold that against him) isn't as interested in identifying the killer here as he is in digging around inside the psyches of Cohle and Hart. Cohle's a stoic enigma with a checkered past that we get to slowly unravel week to week, and we soon learn Hart isn't nearly the upstanding family man he pretends to be, either.
We'll probably find out who committed these murders by season's end (Pizzolatto must've learned at least that much from "The Killing"), but that's not really the point here. If you want to see a murder solved in 60 minutes, click over to CBS; they're probably airing a nice, tidy procedural right now. "True Detective" has bigger fish to fry than solving a simple whodunit.
2. McConaughey knocks it out of the park.
Matthew McConaughey is poised to win an Oscar in a few weeks for his knockout performance in "Dallas Buyers Club." So it sounds ridiculous to suggest that his "True Detective" performance might be even better. And yet, it might be.
As the 1995 Cohle, he's a force of nature: a relentless investigator who's shed any semblance of a personal life (or social niceties) to chase down leads. As the 2012 Cohle, he's a scraggly burnout, his brain fried from his years as an undercover narcotics cop. (Yes, he sampled the wares.) In both eras, he's compelling, confounding, and never less than fascinating. Don't be surprised if McConaughey is doing his "alright alright alright" shtick while clutching an Emmy later this year, halfway to an EGOT.
But Harrelson is no slouch, either: He's got a pair of Oscar nominations of his own, and though his grimly determined Hart is the straight man here, we've already seen his dark side come roaring to the surface when his steamy affair with a young temptress (Alexandra Daddario) went sour. And while McConaughey and Harrelson do most of the heavy lifting here, we still want to see more of Michelle Monaghan as Hart's fed-up wife Maggie and "Boardwalk's" Shea Whigham as a revival-tent preacher.
3. The dialogue puts most crime dramas to shame.
Pizzolatto is a novelist and former literature professor, so the dialogue on "True Detective" isn't limited to cop lingo and quips shared over a dead body. Cohle's chemical experimentation and personal tragedies have left him with a bleak worldview, and prone to spout oblique existential musings about morality and religion. (The more reserved Hart mostly just tells him to shut his trap.)
Some of it smacks of college-freshman philosophy — and yes, most cops don't talk like that. But most White House staffers don't talk like they did on "The West Wing," either. And Cohle's cosmic digressions aren't just a chance for McConaughey to impress Emmy voters. They underscore Pizzolatto's larger target: the savagery of man, and how thin the line is between serial killer and avenging angel.
4. It's set in a world we don't often get to see on TV.
Like last year's imports "Broadchurch" and "Top of the Lake," "True Detective" transcends the cop-show genre by rooting its mystery in a specific and vivid sense of place. "Detective" is set and filmed in the rural towns of southern Louisiana, and it feels a world away from the slick urban procedurals we're used to seeing, taking us from a rusted-out trailer park to a dusty honkytonk bar to a secret backwoods whorehouse.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who also lensed "Top of the Lake") and director Cary Fukunaga take full advantage of the terrain, shooting sweeping vistas that look more like a beautiful photograph than a TV show. (This is one of those shows that makes HDTV worth every penny.) Every frame of "True Detective" is positively dripping with atmosphere, so even the show's (frequent) silent moments are mesmerizing.
5. It's as close as TV gets to auteur cinema.
Most TV is written by committee and directed by a different hired gun each week, but every one of "True Detective's" eight episodes was written by Pizzolatto and directed by Fukunaga. That unusual arrangement gives the series a consistent style and tone that makes it feel more like an eight-hour movie than an episodic series.
And since each season of "True Detective" is self-contained, "American Horror Story"-style, with a new case and a new cast each season, Pizzolatto is under no obligation to stretch this story out past its expiration date, or hold anything back for Season 2. He and Fukunaga (and, by extension, McConaughey and Harrelson) are free to go for broke, and pack every ounce of plot and character development they can think of into these eight episodes. So far, they've packed plenty… and so far, we're spellbound.
Haven't seen "True Detective" yet? Find out what you've been missing with this trailer:
"True Detective" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.