True Detective: TV’s Citizen Kane?

Before new US TV drama True Detective was (legally) available in the UK, British viewers will already have known some of the backstory. Not an account of the characters, but the story of how the show came to be made. US cable supremos HBO gave novelist and disgruntled university professor – is there any other type? – Nic Pizzolatto complete control over his own eight-episode show. The approach taken by HBO is pretty remarkable, but the gamble has paid off. Some critics are hailing True Detective as a televisual Citizen Kane and it is clocking up HBO’s best ratings for a new series since 2010.

Such claims are bolstered by the performances of Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and Michelle Monaghan (who is overlooked in critical coverage of the show). McConaughey and Harrelson play two Louisiana detectives who investigate an occult-themed murder in 1995. Playing both younger and older, more haggard versions of themselves, the action shoots back and forth between the case itself and 2012, when the good ol’ boys have gone their separate ways and are now themselves being interviewed by the police.  On paper, the nihilistic Cohle might seem a little too articulate, but McConaughey makes him entirely convincing. He lords it over the low-lives under questioning in 1995 and his own interrogators in 2012, spouting a detailed dimestore philosophy.

Given recent complaints about the prominence of female corpses in crime drama – from Helen Mirren and David Hare, among others – there’s no sidestepping the fact that a dead woman supplies the pivotal plot point of True Detective. Yet this is largely a formality, just like pairing the chalk-and-cheese cops. On paper, this reads like conveyor belt TV, yet the writing, performance and bleak cinematography makes Pizzolatto’s screen debut compulsive viewing.

Graham Barnfield blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox.

True Detective continues on Sky Atlantic this Saturday at 9pm.

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