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13 March 2014updated 03 Aug 2021 2:34pm

Sky Atlantic’s True Detective: not as much cop as it thinks it is

Despite the laborious chronology, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughy, as the two detectives, will keep you watching.

By Rachel Cooke

True Detective
Sky Atlantic HD

The HBO series True Detective (Saturdays, 9pm), now screening on Sky Atlantic HD, is not half as clever as it thinks it is – though why it should care, I don’t know. After all, it seems to have duped the critics, who have declared it – and I’m not even paraphrasing – “the best television ever”.

Apparently these guys haven’t spotted the close attention the show pays to the dreary and misogynistic second law of American television, which states that any cop series in which the action takes place in Louisiana or elsewhere in the south must contain at least one sequence in which a cop visits a strip joint; duffs up an investigation-impeding redneck; accuses his wife of being a “ball-breaker” when she tentatively nags him about his hours; drinks too much because he is troubled by his “dark” past. (The first law of American television, by the way, has to do with New York, pretzels, New Balance trainers and a gloomy Central Park underpass – but let’s save that for another day.)

True Detective is an anthology series. There are eight parts and then it will end; any second season will involve new actors and a new storyline. It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who gave us the film of Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender, and it’s written by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto (Galveston). It looks excellent – several episodes down the line, I gather, we will get to see a tracking shot that lasts for six minutes – and it sounds . . . That’s the thing. It sounds complicated.

Pizzolatto has employed one of the most laborious time structures ever seen on television. The action takes place in 1995, in the days after the ritual murder of a young woman in a sugar cane field, but this is all in flashback. The story is, therefore, weirdly and sometimes confoundingly punctuated by police interviews that are being conducted in 2012 with the two detectives who led the original investigation. Combine this with the riddle-me-ree dialogue – when one character says to another, “I want you to stop talking this weird shit,” it’s hard not to sympathise – and what the viewer feels mostly is not terror, or even pity. It’s irritation.

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What might keep you watching is Woody Harrelson’s performance as Detective Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s as Detective Rust Cohle. Harrelson acts mostly with his lower lip, a ledge so pronounced that he could rest his badge on it if he wanted to. He’s self-deceiving and self-justifying and the lip comes into play, like a gun, whenever he is thwarted. McConaughey’s 1995 version of Cohle is waxy of complexion and stringy of neck and moves pedantically about the crime scene in the manner of an insurance clerk inspecting window locks (his nickname is “Taxman”, on account of the ledger he carries wherever he goes).

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The 2012 version of Taxman comes with a ponytail, a drooping moustache and a drinking problem. This performance – the job, you gather, has ruined him – is horribly clichéd: the way he holds his cigarette between thumb and index finger; the way he sucks down his beer, eyes closed, as if it were a lake and he had been walking for five days through a dusty canyon to find it. But it’s mesmerising, too. Something about McConaughey’s bone structure speaks to this part: at times he looks half-dead. No wonder he has such a feeling for the corpse.

Ah, yes. The corpse. The (troublingly curvy) victim was posed naked with a set of antlers on her head, some satanic nonsense made of twigs nearby – which brings me to what might stop you watching. Given that we’re in good ol’ Louisiana, I was hardly expecting a fully Susan Faludi-approved character to burst through my screen (though True Blood has a strong woman at its heart). Even so, this is pitiful. These women! Marty’s wife is a martyr to his womanising and every other female is a prostitute, an obliging good-time girl, or both. The thought occurs that the victim is the quietest woman in this show only by a very small margin – at which point, the next episode starts to seem about as enticing as a solo visit to a Louisiana dive bar.