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John Doyle

True Detective: McConaughey and Harrelson are the marquee names, but the show’s the star Add to ...

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are here to discuss True Detective, the HBO crime drama that has already been called “the year’s best new show,” and called that without contradiction.

Two movie stars. Marquee names. In normal circumstances – that is, in the movie racket – the attention would be on them. The first question is, however, aimed at the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto. He’s asked about his work on the U.S. version of The Killing on AMC and the issue of resolving a mystery to the satisfaction of viewers. Notoriously, The Killing’s first season ended without resolution, and that angered some vocal viewers.

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“Any of the ambitions and plans that I had for this show were gestated before I joined The Killing,“ Pizzolatto says. “My idea about mystery and how to handle these sorts of stories just came out of my own ethos as a writer.”

First lesson to be noted here: TV is a writer’s medium. True Detective, which premiers Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada, is a serious-minded drama on a serious channel. The star wattage of McConaughey and Harrelson matters less than the thoughts and ambitions of the writer.

Eventually, the two stars begin answering questions. It turns out neither has much to say beyond glib expressions of delight in working together and dutiful praise for the script. McConaughey acknowledges that he’s having a good year in terms of work and acclaim – his turn in Dallas Buyers Club has already earned him a Golden Globe nod.

He also reveals that initially he was asked to consider playing the True Detective character that Harrelson plays. And Harrelson wisecracks that McConaughey shouldn’t give the impression that he auditions for roles these days. He’s bigger than that.

This is cute, but it’s piffle. And barely relevant. True Detective is a multi-episode drama of grave intent and profound depth. The movie-star thoughts? Who needs ’em?

The series is, on the surface, a buddy drama about two cops, ill-matched partners, working to solve a case. But think of that familiar premise as reimagined by William Faulkner and you’d come close to its bleakness and unforgiving exploration of moral decay. It’s a masterpiece of imaginative insight. Set in a Louisiana bayou that’s lush on the surface, and stripped of grace and virtue in reality, the show is a puzzle solved by piecing together the past. It’s set in the present, as the two cops, Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson), are being interviewed, separately, about a case they investigated in 1995. It was a horrifying, ghoulish murder – a young woman was found dead, naked and adorned with the trappings of a ritual animal slaying.

As we get to know the cops, Hart appears at first to be the normal one, if a bit depressed: a man of Prufrockian gloom and hesitation. (Harrelson describes him as “a man who feels life has slipped through his fingers.”) Then we find out this guy, married with kids, secretly lives like an aged frat boy. He boozes, frequents strip clubs, and has a young mistress. Not that he’s open about this when interviewed by other cops.

It is Cohle, however, who becomes the focus of attention. Damaged, cynical, smart, formidably well-read and shrewd, he’s a fatalist to the point of nihilism. He is, in fact, more terrifying to encounter than the murderer responsible for the ghastly killing. “I can understand why they came to me for [the Hart role],” McConaughey says. “But Cohle was the voice that I couldn’t get out of my mind. I thought, ‘I have not done that, but I know who he is. I know how that mind works.’”

The truth of that statement might be well-intentioned, and McConaughey is astonishingly good as Cohle, but the complexity of the character is not something he is equipped to define. Leave that to the writer, Pizzolatto. Of Cohle he says, “Pessimism and romanticism are both two sides to his same illusion.”

There is, in fact, a powerful and affecting, utterly wistful cadence to Cohle’s story. He’s stripped of illusions, eventually. And while Harrelson’s character is someone viewers will recognize as a middle-aged good ol’ boy gone to seed, in Cohle they will see another archetype: the driven, disciplined detective, now shockingly reduced to cold, stoic pessimism. We see, as we are meant to, a potentially heroic American exemplar twisted by circumstance into an alarmingly negative man.

That circumstance is the murder case. It is approached delicately at first, from multiple angles. The victim comes into focus and then disappears – into a world of religious madness, sex slavery and casual brutality. If Cohle is the American hero drained of all optimism, then the victim is that optimism embodied, now blighted and gone.

And it’s no stretch to see this compelling, entertaining drama as a statement about a nation. Asked why he set the mystery in rural Louisiana and not a city, Pizzolatto said the urban setting would make it too generic, too non-specific. “These are things I’m more interested in,” he says. “In rural America, there’s a postindustrial, end-of-empire thing going on and I’m more interested in that.”

Ignoring the broad thematic implications is no barrier to enjoying True Detective. It’s a captivating, albeit slow-moving, superbly told mystery with nuanced performances. McConaughey might never get a role as meaty as Cohle. Harrelson is superb as the decayed good man, husband and father. Asked how he dealt with a character who, thanks to flashbacks, is both a younger man full of sly jocularity and an older man beaten down by work and life, he quips, “I just took off my wig.”

In this instance, as so often happens with the best of TV these days, the stars aren’t really the torque that drives the drama. The writer is: brooding at length on anger and heartbreak, grief and pain, and wrapping it all inside the familiar premise, but pushing it to new horizons. And for all the bleakness, watching True Detective one ends up elevated and elated by the quality of it. The two movie stars may help promote it, but it’s not theirs – it belongs to the writer and is ours to savour.

Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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