True Detective: Episode One

Mason Cross, author of The Killing Season, introduces HBO’s latest gritty crime drama: True Detective.


True Detective


True Detective, the latest serving of gritty drama from the cheery folks at HBO, arrives onscreen amid the kind of reviews that almost dare you not to like it.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock in a broadband blackspot for the past couple of months, you’ll know that the show stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of mismatched homicide cops (it might be fun, one day, to see a show revolving around two perfectly matched homicide cops who get on like a house on fire). The two, symbolically named Hart and Cohle, are called in to investigate a grisly ritual murder in rural Louisiana in the mid-1990s.

So far, so conventional, but the show immediately throws us a curve ball by relating the main story through a framing device: the older, perhaps wiser, certainly more haggard Hart and Cohle being interviewed seventeen years later by a pair of present-day cops who seem to be very interested not just in the homicide investigation, but in the details of Hart and Cohle’s relationship. By the end of the episode, the reason for their interest in the case and the two investigators becomes clear: they are investigating a new murder with striking similarities to the case Hart and Cohle apparently closed in 1995.

Writer Nic Pizzolatto has said he didn’t want True Detective to be merely ‘another serial killer show’, and the fact that the two leads are the clear focus rather than the whodunit element provides a fresh angle on familiar subject matter. With his dead-eyed stare, tragic background and propensity for nihilistic speechifying, McConaughey’s character is the most immediately interesting of the two.

Harrelson, playing against type, does a great job of suggesting hidden depths to ‘the normal one’, despite his stable family life and more approachable personality. There’s even a postmodern discussion of the different ‘types’ of cop. It’s Harrelson we identify with at the midpoint, though, when he pleads with his partner to ‘stop saying odd shit’.

You get the feeling that the mystery of who these men really are will be just as important, if not more so, than the identity of the serial killer. It’s this focus on the central characters, their relationship to one another, to the case and to their time and place that sets True Detective apart from other grisly murder shows like The Following.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t deliver on that level, as well. The omnipresent feeling of dread and the composed, artful murder scenes lend the show the vibe of a Southern Gothic version of David Fincher’s Se7en. T Bone Burnett, in something of a change of pace from his work on Nashville, provides a spare, bluesy score that contributes a lot to the brooding atmosphere.

The dual-time periods are well delineated, and you get the feeling more will be made of this in the episodes to come. Despite being set in the relatively recent past, True Detective does a nicely understated job of showing how much things have changed since 1995. This is most obvious in the way that the almost exclusively white male police department gives way to one with a little more diversity. 

It’s also the source of a rare humorous moment, when the modern interrogators are most shocked not by the details of McConaughey’s story, but by his lighting of a cigarette indoors.

The pace is languid, deliberate. It feels more like the first fifty pages of a literary crime novel than television. If the first episode makes anything clear, it’s that True Detective is a show that’s going to take its time to build to what the early moments hint will be an infernal climax.

I’m looking forward to discovering exactly how it’s going to get there over the next seven weeks.


Mason Cross is the author of The Killing Season, published by Orion. The King in Yellow, one of the inspirations behind True Detective, is published by Gollancz and available in ebook now.