True Detective is HBO’s hope for its next great drama. And based off the first few episodes, it’s safe to say they’ve done it again.
The show, debuting January 12th at 9PM, features Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in probably their meatiest, most interesting acting roles in ages. The show spans two periods of time: 1995, when McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Harrelson’s Marty Hart are partners solving a crime; and 2012, when Cohle is a beaten, much less put-together man no longer chasing criminals and Hart seems to be suffering from his own demons.
The story looks at Rust and Marty’s initial investigation — as well as their somewhat tenuous relationship as partners — and a similar crime that occurred in 2012. The files from the initial case were destroyed so the new detectives working the case need to speak with Rust and Marty to learn about what happened in 1995. It’s a simple way to tie together two different versions of the same characters and extremely effective as a narrative tool.
From the first moments you see McConaughey play the 2012 version of Rust, you’ll see a role that you might not have imagined the former Sexiest Man Alive taking on, let alone with this degree of white trash aplomb. But McConaughey is so convincing that you’ll wonder why he doesn’t take these challenges more often. He’s profoundly beaten down but much more self-assured than the 1995 version. Rust Cohle is a troubled man regardless of the timeframe, but McConaughey plays both versions of him in a tremendously compelling way. The 2012 version in particular deserves so much of the screen time that you’ll wish you could see more.
Meanwhile, Harrelson plays a much more buttoned up character than McConaughey. Marty Hart is a family man, the outgoing sort who hangs out with coworkers and whose wife demands that they have Rust over to dinner with her and the kids. Marty’s problems are all beneath the surface, only bubbling up in frustration and confusion over Rust and the life he leads.
Rust is a much more complex sort, living in an empty apartment decorated only by books on crime. He’s a bachelor with a drinking problem, a pill problem, and a brusk way of dealing with people reminiscent of Claire Danes on Homeland. But he’s good at his job, to a fault, and it’s implied that people tolerate him because of that.
Unlike some of the other shows based around murder in recent months like Low Winter Sun and The Bridge, murder is not the show. We’re not forced to trudge through too much time with gruesome corpses or grizzly murder scenes. The focus is on the characters, their relationships, and the investigation. True Detective is all the better for it.
This show feels big. It feels special. It feels like a master class in acting and ambience from two guys who are huge names but you definitely wouldn’t expect this from. It’s great in the way that HBO does best. And that’s why I’m comfortable declaring True Detective to be the best new show you’ll see on TV this year.