Is True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, the best US detective show since The Wire?

Hollywood’s man of the moment, Oscar nominated for Dallas Buyers Club, continues his mid-life career revival with an astonishing performance in the HBO show. Sarah Hughes meets its creator

Every now and then a television programme arrives so fully formed and confident that the only response is to gasp in pleasure and applaud. Crime thriller True Detective, which starts on Sky Atlantic on Saturday, is one such show.

On paper the plot doesn't sound all that different from a thousand similar dramas. In 1995, two mismatched detectives, played by two masters of the laconic, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, investigate a ritual killing in the Louisiana bayou.

Seventeen years later those same detectives, both having quit the force in the intervening years, find themselves being interrogated separately about the case and about their own complicated  relationship.

Is there a new murder? Did they arrest the wrong person? What exactly went wrong both back in 1995 and in 2002, the year when the two men's partnership came to a sudden end?

The case itself - a naked girl with antlers on her head posed like a ritual sacrifice with a "devil catcher" swaying gently in the breeze above - is the sort of unpleasant shocker that's increasingly in vogue (is it too much to hope that one day the central murder will involve something other than the degraded, naked body of a young woman?) but what's interesting is what writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga do with their tale.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as Hart and Cohle Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as Hart and Cohle

"I think the strangeness of it is what attracted Woody and Matthew," admits Pizzolatto, a  38-year-old novelist and academic whose only previous television experience was writing for the US remake of The Killing. "I was very  conscious that I didn't want it to be a traditional thriller - I know some people might initially be put off by that but I hope they'll find that the story comes to make sense. It's actually a very neat narrative, very precise."

Thus, True Detective is not a straightforward story of the hunt for a serial killer but a study of damnation and the slow fall from grace told over eight tense episodes (if the show returns for a second season it will be with a different cast and setting).

Pizzolatto has "literally no interest in serial killers" no interest in trying to shock or gross people out with portrayals of gore". Instead, he's fascinated by the lies people tell, both to others, and, more crucially, to themselves. "Illusions and what they cost us is one of the governing themes of the show," he says. "Both the lead characters have illusions and neither knows how to live well, for different reasons. This is not an ensemble show so much as a two-hander focusing on these men and their relationship."

It helps that the two lead performances are outstanding. As the confident Hart, Harrelson is all good ole boy charm, until the mask  slips and you see something of the coward who lurks within, meanwhile McConaughey, Hollywood's man of the moment, Oscar-nominated for Dallas Buyers Club , continues his mid-life career revival with an astonishing performance as Cohle.

In the 1995 scenes Cohle is merely odd. Part-time philosopher and full-time obsessive with a past so lurid a penny-dreadful writer would think twice before scribbling it down, by 2012 he's burnt out and wasted, living on life's margins and resigned to his fate, yet still  possessing enough ruined intelligence to make you wonder just what went wrong. 

Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cohle in True Detective Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cohle in True Detective

Many actors would find it impossible not to overplay Cohle. McConaughey's strength, like that of the equally laid-back Robert Mitchum, lies in his stillness. That's not to say True Detective, which pulled in 2.3 million viewers in America (HBO's best for a new show since 2010) and draws more praise with each episode (US critics recently hailed the climax to the fourth episode as "astonishing") is perfect.

As is too often the case with this type of drama the female characters are pretty much mothers, whores and the mothers of whores. Michelle Monaghan tries hard to make an impression in a largely thankless role as Hart's wife. Pizzolatto, whose atmospheric first novel, Galveston, suggests he can write a well-rounded female character, insists her role increases in importance as the series progresses.

Pizzolatto and Fukunaga seem intent on throwing the rulebook away, creating something that's closer in feel to a James Lee Burke novel than a standard television thriller. Their level of control - unusually for a US drama every episode is written by Pizzolatto and directed by Fukunaga - allows them to take a number of risks from long monologues about seemingly tangential subjects to the almost dreamlike pacing, Fukunaga's camera drifting over the Louisiana landscape, the children hanging out on their bikes, the boarded-up houses, the roads seemingly heading nowhere.

It's a bleak, hardscrabble world leavened only by the odd moment of dark humour. Most importantly, like David Simon with The Wire, Pizzolatto has created a world that is instantly, utterly his. Atmospheric (the haunting soundtrack comes from country master T Bone  Burnett), disturbing and occasionally so pretentious it hurts, True Detective is like nothing else on television right now.

‘True Detective' starts on Saturday 22 January at 9pm on Sky Atlantic


Watch the trailer for HBO's True Detective

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee