A young woman has been murdered. Her naked body is found under a tree, bound and propped up to imitate kneeling in prayer. A set of deer antlers perches like a crown on her head. A bloody spiral is carved into her skin. A quiet detective takes notes at the scene on an oversized notepad. He looks up into the cloudy Louisiana sky, watching a giant flock of birds take flight. The flock shapes itself into a migrating imitation of the grisly spiral on the dead girl. Is that a hallucination? A sign from God? A clue?
This is the surreal, macabre and beautiful world of HBO's "True Detective," created and written by Nic Pizzolatto. Matthew McConaughey plays a philosophizing homicide detective with a mysterious past and Woody Harrelson plays his philandering yet conflicted good ol' boy partner. Sprinkled throughout are familiar characters: An angry police captain, a dutiful but unhappy wife, a buxom, borderline-underage mistress, serial killers and a shady suspect or two. But the familiar world of noir gumshoes and classic door-knocking investigation ends there. "True Detective" digs deeper into its characters than your average whodunit. For one thing, the show spans an unusually broad timeline. One part of the story takes place in the mid-1990s as the two detectives investigate a serial killer. A separate story takes place in the present day, 17 years later, as the detectives—changed through time and experience—revisit the case through interviews.
"True Detective," which premiered Jan. 12, is pure Southern gothic fiction in the truest form ever adapted for television. It's not the campy and simpering fantasy/romance mashup of "True Blood," nor the romantic/tragic melodrama of Anne Rice. This is like something out of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" or Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," where the Southern location and humid atmosphere are just as important as the storyline and characters. Scenes move between decrepit buildings, seedy trailer parks and dingy restaurants. The damp, dark and messy bayou foliage serves as a metaphorical backdrop to Harrelson's strained marriage and McConaughey's tragic past. For each part of the story we can take at face value, other parts seem less certain as to whether they're real or imagined. Equally disconcerting: wondering if each character we meet is a murdering psychopath.
"True Detective," which is currently halfway through its first season, is a mere eight episodes. Unlike so many lengthy American television series, it requires concise storytelling. (It is, however, like "American Horror Story" in that the next season will involve a different storyline with a different set of actors.) Fortunately, McConaughey and Harrelson make the most and best of the time they have on-screen. Present-day McConaughey is bedraggled, frail and washed up. He agrees to continue the interview only if provided with a six pack of Lone Star. He has changed over the years from wistful and melancholic to bitter and full of contempt. Present-day Harrelson is divorced, beer-gutted and eager to put on a hyucking, happy-go-lucky front. His tragic former self was naïve, in over his head and insecure. Both men have lost something in the 17 years between one narrative and the other. The show handles that gap with artful restraint. It's a mystery that keeps us hooked—and helps make this one of the most engaging shows on television.