‘True Detective’ refreshes crime genre

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The latest HBO crime drama “True Detective” reopens a 1995 case after a recent occult murder convinces present-day detectives that a serial killer is still on the loose. Recorded interviews with former detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who separately recount their experiences sleuthing out the initial murder of Dora Lange, replace old files that were ruined in Hurricane Rita. The show loops between the two different time frames of 1995 and 2012. The title of the pilot episode, “The Long Bright Dark,” sounds like a metaphor for the disparity between the past and present, juxtaposed by constant yet seamless flashbacks.

The pace of the show burns slowly, like the seemingly inextinguishable cigarette the present-day Cohle perpetually has propped above his coffee mug. But every silence and “ahem” meticulously construct a detailed character study, setting the show apart from the conventions of mystery-centered detective dramas. The murder case is strange, yes – but the show isn’t really even about that. Viewers follow the leads – as in those of the actors, not necessarily the case itself.

This is the kind of character portrait that immediately resolves itself as we get to see these men on the other side of this case in the present day, 17 years after they stumble upon the dead woman in the crown of antlers. Hart looks the same, apart from his receding hairline. But the aftershots of Cohle are startling. Here is a man who has gone from soberly clean-cut to a gaunt alcoholic with a ponytail – the embodiment of a hard-boiled detective post-employment. The visual juxtapositions set up the mystery of the void in between our view of their past and present, provoking the question of how they got that way.

We get some indicators, like young Cohle showing up to Hart’s house drunk with a bouquet of flowers on his dead daughter’s birthday. Hart sleeps on the couch without his wife and takes a mysterious office visit with an attractive woman. Meanwhile, these mismatched partners ideologically butt heads while trying to figure each other out.

Right off the bat, each detective’s distinctive sleuthing methods say a lot about who they are. Cohle is called “The Tax Man” because he carries a ledger for his myriad notes. He’s a cerebral loner who draws his bountiful knowledge of serial killers on books – which are the sole decor in his empty apartment. He’s constantly on the look out for some “little detail somewhere down the line that makes you say ‘ohh’ and breaks the case.” Hart, on the other hand, has a simplistic view of others, claiming, “I’ve seen all of the different types. We all fit a certain category … I was just a regular type dude, with a big-ass dick.”

The significance of placing two big-name movie stars in a television series is that these actors are deft enough to say a lot merely with their body language. They’re both expanding beyond their comfort zones, enacting a literal role reversal as Harrelson plays the straight-laced go-getter and McConaughey plays the off-center nihilist. The show continues the renaissance in the latter’s critically acclaimed career, which was recently bolstered by a Golden Globe win for his role in “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Sure, McConaughey gets stuck with most of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s writerly exposition in soliloquized shows of purely intellectual dialogue – but at least his character is cerebral and disconnected enough from humanity for that to seem natural.

This show is the portrait of two broken men – and the process of their breaking – that reveals the effects grappling with prolonged exposure to true horror can have on the human psyche. What’s more, the miniseries mirrors the anthology format of “American Horror Story,” and will renew each season with a different cast of characters and story. This adds a fresh angle to a genre that’s almost as dead as its murder victims.