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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?