True Detective, the moody new police drama from HBO (airing January 12, 9pET), may be what Southern noir fans have been waiting for. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey star as two Louisiana detectives, tasked with solving the ritualistic occult murder of a woman in 1995, who are then interviewed in the modern day about the case. Set in the blue collar towns surrounding the Atchafalaya basin, the people seem muted and crushed beneath an invisible thumb.
At first glance, detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) come off as a Mulder and Scully pair, with Cohle as the eerie brain of the outfit, husking observations and theories while Hart frowns and voices his skepticism. But it quickly turns bleak, with Cohle sharing a nihilistic worldview that would make H.P. Lovecraft's seem practically cheerful. To the writer's credit, Hart reacts as a real person would, and doesn't snap a one-liner. This conversation will likely decide whether you will enjoy the show or not.
The pilot is a slow burn in a burnt-out human landscape devoid of kindling. Creator Nic Pizzolatto is the author of the novel Galveston, an Edgar finalist for best first novel in 2010. It was favorably compared to the early work of Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. High praise, indeed, and the tone lives up to it. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre), we are given little introduction and thrown into the middle of a murder investigation; the story cuts between the already damaged men hunting a deranged killer, and what they've become a dozen years later.
Editor's note: for the series pilot, the whole write-up's spoiler-free.
The make-up department will be nominated for an Emmy for depicting two detectives on the cusp of ravagement and long after they've rebuilt themselves. The season will only run eight episodes, and takes its time setting up the premise; we don't learn the heart of it until the final shot, but it felt worth it to me. There are echoes of David Lynch, Thomas Harris, and the Southern noir of Donald Ray Pollock. Despite the leached colors of the land and the gaunt face of young Rust Cohle, a man who's had a vital chunk cut out of him, the story felt fresh and intriguing, due to the aforementioned tone and the acting chops of the two leads, who make a pair of curt and morose officers interesting company to spend an hour with.
That is what kept me. The direction doesn't depend on shock, but leans heavily on the creep factor. The occult aspect is kept to a minimum, but what we see is unfamiliar and intriguing. Having traveled Louisiana often, the setting felt authentic and the people aren't caricatures. The mix of Cajun and Louisiana dialects rang true. If I had any reservations it was with the plot, as I've seen serial killer stories before. I've been a fan since reading Red Dragon, but lately I've found them more of the same. The murder scene that opens True Detective is not particularly gory or disturbing for a crime fiction fan, but there is something off about that caught my interest, and the minimalist storytelling kept that spark alive.
The trailers that HBO has been playing shield the bleakness and focus on the gritty police procedural aspect. It's the artful combination of both that has me hungry for the next episode. The frame used for the story, of then and now, is used to great effect for suspense. We know these men spiraled into violence and something drove them apart after years of successful work, and the changes in character over that timespan left me eager to learn what it is. Pizzolatto and Fukunaga lead us into a dark forest of tormented character, and I'll be following the crumbs wherever they lead.
Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.