Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: True Detective a classic in the making

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Chris Philpott predicts big things for Matthew McConaughey, thanks to his role in True Detective.
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in a scene from True Detective.
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in a scene from True Detective.

Matthew McConaughey won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Drama) on Monday afternoon, owing to his stellar performance in recent film Dallas Buyers Club. Alright, alright, alriiight!

At almost exactly the same time, the first episode of brand new show True Detective - which stars McConaughey alongside Woody Harrelson - was finishing up on US network HBO.

It's going to be a big year for McConaughey because, on the strength of two episodes of True Detective that I've seen, he'll be accepting an award for that in 12 months.

Luckily, Kiwi viewers didn't have to wait long for True Detective: it began on SoHo within 30 hours of the US.

Written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and envisioned as an "anthology series", meaning that each season will tell a different story involving a different cast of characters, the first season of True Detective follows detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) as they relate the story of a serial killer investigation they did in 1995, in a set of interviews with a pair of detectives looking into the reappearance of the killer in 2012.

The interviews are a rather brilliant conceit for the show, allowing writer Pizzolatto to tell the story more organically and without being tied to a specific timeline, and calling into question the reliability of what we're being told by Cohle and Hart, both of whom seem troubled by what transpired in 1995.

Yet, at the same time, "what transpired in 1995" doesn't seem too important to the show. The killing that provides a catalyst for what we're seeing takes a back seat to the character dynamics between Cohle and Hart. Their investigation feels less important, or feels like it was purposely written to feel less important, than the change that is taking place with our leading men, and how they've been affected by the case they're investigating.

McConaughey is definitely the stand-out here, essentially playing two different characters. The Cohle of 1995 and the Cohle of 2012 are two different beasts entirely: the first is depressively philosophical about the case and the world, obviously disillusioned by what he sees, a ghost of himself because of events that took place before we met him. The second is defiant and dishevelled, throwing his hands up at the world in exasperation.

The 1995 edition is seeing the truth of the world for the first time, while the 2012 version has accepted it, made peace with it. The change between 1995 and 2012 is so severe, you'd be forgiven for thinking Cohle was played by two different actors. Yes, McConaughey is that good, playing both with such skill that he'd be getting award buzz for either one, let alone for both.

That is not to say that Harrelson isn't good too, because he absolutely is. The rest of the supporting case - particularly Kevin Dunn, the grumpy police captain who sees how good his detectives are - turn in some good work as well. But I just think McConaughey is operating at a different level entirely.

True Detective also benefits from some tight writing and direction, courtesy of creator Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre). The pair are writing and directing every episode this season, which should give the show a consistency that is lacking in most serial dramas. Fukunaga's flair for scenery and colour, especially, make for a visually impressive series.

If there was a criticism, it would be the over-familiarity of some of the horror elements. There has been viewer movement away from this type of twist-ridden, dark and disturbing crime show, purely based on the sheer number on the air - Broadchurch (coming to One), Hannibal (coming very soon to TV3), The Bridge, The Killing, Forbrydelsen, Top Of The Lake, and The Following are just a few off the top of my head.

Pizzolatto does veer into some of the tropes: creepy musical cues, pseudo-religious imagery and even the odd use of antlers (a familiar sight on Hannibal) mark the killer as a particularly disturbed individual and, as a result, the case ends up being the least interesting thing about the show.

Fortunately, it isn't meant to be the most interesting thing about True Detective. It all comes back to those characters, those leading performances. The increased focus on Cohle and Hart ensures that any problems with the story are quickly forgotten.

And in that context, this is a well written show - with the exception of a few serial killer clichés - that benefits from a superb showing from McConaughey and a wonderfully unique visual style.

* True Detective airs Tuesdays at 8.30pm on SoHo.

Did you watch the season premiere of True Detective? What did you think?

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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