Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are actors with a kinship—Southern fellers with a lackadaisical manner, sleazy charm, and a wily intelligence they often seem happy for you to mistake for stupidity. They worked together on 1999’s Ed TV and 2009’s Surfer, Dude, in which McConaughey played a meta-distillation of his onetime public persona: an allergic-to-shirts, just-keep-livin’ stoner bro. In retrospect, it seems that it was the double toke of Surfer, Dude and the execrable Ghosts of Girlfriends Past that snapped McConaughey out of his decade of willful underachieving in the rom-com slums and launched him into our current welcome moment of peak McConaughey. (Once just a pin-up, he has become the poster boy for the talented but unambitious and idling everywhere. One day, you too may wake up and begin living up to your potential.) Harrelson, who never underachieved as consistently as McConaughey, also did some of his best work soon after Surfer, Dude, delivering his best performance in years in 2009’s The Messenger, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
Wide awake, McConaughey and Harrelson join forces once again, this time in something befitting not just their pecs but their talents: HBO’s magisterial eight-episode series True Detective, a big-time serious drama that is just as awesome—not only in the Surfer, Dude sense but in the awe-inspiring sense—as it so clearly aspires to be. Written and created by Nic Pizzolatto (who previously worked on The Killing—you can’t judge a man just by his résumé) and with every episode directed by Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre), True Detective is a metaphysical murder series, fixated on the sordid thrills of character. (Pizzolatto told Alan Sepinwall “I have literally no interest in serial killers, and I have no interest in trying to shock or gross people out with a portrayal of gore.”) Creepy, gorgeous, unsettling, and searching, it has—for lack of a better word—a literary quality, an accretion of meaningful detail. You can push on any aspect of the show—every line, every shot, every bruise—and it bears up. The show is substantial enough to overthink, In fact, overthinking it—noodling on its themes, ideas, images, lines—is one of its signal pleasures.
The series begins in Louisiana in both 1995 and 2012. In 2012, former detectives Marty Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey) are separately being interviewed about a murder case they worked in ’95, allegedly because the files for that case were ruined in a hurricane. The series flashes back to the past as they relate how they solved the case, one in which a woman was slashed, drugged, tortured, and then found posed out-of-doors wearing a crown of antlers. This possible occult, possible serial murder is just one of True Detective’s many, layered mysteries. First among them: What happened to Rust Cohle?
After 17 years, Marty has lost some hair and his wedding band, but he is recognizable as the cocky man he used to be. But Rust has undergone a more serious physical transformation. McConaughey is still working with his Dallas Buyers Club skin-and-bones look, and the younger Rust is wiry and muscular, his brown bangs flopping over his gaunt face. Seventeen years later, he has transformed into a kind of redneck hippie, his graying hair parted in the middle and held back in a ponytail, chain-smoking and chain-drinking, his intensity, though not his intelligence, diminished. (Not to belabor the point, but who imagined around the time of Fool’s Gold that McConaughey was one of the rare actors who can project intelligence?)
Do people change? Or is change just an illusion? Cohle and Hart caught a murderer, but someone out there is murdering again. The show covers a 17-year period, on both ends of which Marty and Rust are nearly strangers. Marty’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) tells Rust people can change, but a few scenes before she insists to Marty that no one really changes deep down inside. In shot after shot, trains or ships or cars cut through the gorgeous Louisiana landscape. Things are constantly in motion, but that may just mean they are staying ever more the same.
Marty and Rust, at least, are not quite as they are first presented to us. Marty, married with two kids, is introduced as the audience surrogate, a self-described “regular-type guy,” who is being questioned about brilliant oddball Rust, and not the other way around. “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing,” Marty says of Rust, and this, initially, seems a fair assessment. Rust has a drinking problem and heavy emotional baggage. He lives alone in a spare room with a mattress on the floor and books about murderers on a shelf. He is consumed with existential questions and describes himself as a philosophical pessimist. He says things like, “I think human consciousness is a misstep in evolution. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, programmed with total assurance that we are somebody, when in fact we are nobody.” After such theorizing it is Marty who steps in, the audience stand-in, to check this high-falutin’ philosophizing, to roll his eyes, to call bullshit, to keep the pretentiousness contained.
But as the show unfolds, this seemingly simple presentation—regular Joe partnered with unnerving not-so-regular Joe—reveals itself to be a manipulation to draw us in. Marty really is regular: He possesses some nasty qualities and an all-too-common tendency to comprehend the world exclusively through his own experiences and ego. All of his claims about the necessity of family and rules and fatherhood in curtailing a man’s destructive urges are projections of his own needs and limitations, not Rust’s. As in the Scandinavian crime show The Bridge, we are encouraged to identify with the normal character, only for the show to counter-suggest that it is the person who does not hew to social niceties who has the more robust, effective, honorable moral code.
And Rust’s ethics, unlike those of Marty and, as Marty puts it, “everyone else in a 1,000-mile radius,” don’t even rely on God. True Detective is unique on television in its treatment of religion: Not only, unlike most TV shows, does it treat religion at all, but it gets pretty damn blasphemous. When the case leads them to a tent revival meeting, Rust disparages the IQ of everyone assembled, leading to a debate with Marty about whether religion reins in bad behavior. Marty thinks that without religion, society would be more debauched and murderous; Rust* just thinks sins performed in secret would be public. “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother,” Rust says, “that person is a piece of shit and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.” Marty offers an effective enough rejoinder (effective enough, anyway, to keep some people from flicking off their televisions), but the show seems squarely on Rust’s side: He has described Marty’s behavior—doing bad, in secret—precisely.
The world of True Detective is dark. Rust and Marty tell a woman her daughter is dead and even as she is mourning, the camera flashes to a framed photo on a shelf, alongside her children’s pictures, of a bunch of Klan men mounted on horses, posing for the camera. Sheriffs take a cut from whorehouses and cops don’t return calls from black churches. People are poor and drunk and drugged. They get lost. They die and no one knows they’re gone.
But True Detective is never quite depressing. There is something invigorating about watching a show this searching. Its mood, its details, its performances, its genre pleasures are so exacting and exceptional that it can be fearlessly eggheady. It’s a rejoinder to HBO’s other show that wants to be about big ideas, Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, a series that stomps and snorts and screams about the shortage of smart, demanding, mind-expanding television for intelligent people without actually being any of those things. True Detective is all of them, without the tantrum, just the goods.
Correction, Jan. 9, 2014: The article orginally attributed this thought to Marty. (Return to the corrected sentence.)