Television: A-list acting and cinematic quality lift crime drama out of pulp-fiction swamp

HBO produces a new genre-defining crime drama, a legal series loses the plot, and an aviation history nosedives

Fair cops: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in ‘True Detective’

Fair cops: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in ‘True Detective’

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

The bare-bones setup in True Detective (Sky Atlantic, Saturday) could belong to any hokey yarn in a pulp-fiction crime magazine – the new HBO series even takes its name from one of the most popular in the often-ridiculed publishing genre.

Two mismatched detectives, an experienced, easygoing good ol’ boy and his new, uptight, book-learning partner, are the crime-solving duo on the hunt for a killer with a seemingly satanic obsession. Throw in a swampy location and it’s as familiar as can be. But even before you allow for the striking cinematic quality of True Detective , with HBO bringing its typically feature-film-sized budgets to the eight-part series, this was never going to be just another police procedural, because Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, both A-list movie stars, are the leads. And they give extraordinary performances, right from the first scenes, creating mesmerisingly complex characters that hint at their dark secrets.

Harrelson is the laid-back Louisiana cop Martin Hart, and McConaughey is Rusty Cohle, newly arrived from Texas with his troubled, complicated world view. Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the series, gives him dialogue that’s almost poetic – these cops don’t talk about where their next doughnut is coming from or riff off each other about perps and pimps – and it’s a testament to McConaughey’s performance that it works. “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle,” says Cohle. “I just want you to stop saying odd sh*t,” Hart replies. “Like you ‘smell a psychosphere’ or you’re in ‘someone’s faded memory of a town’. Just stop.”

The action slips between time periods, drip-feeding information with the feel and pace of a good crime novel. In 2012 Hart and Cohle are seen interviewed separately about their investigation of the 1995 murder of a prostitute, Dora Lange, whose naked body was found tied to a tree in a desolate, rural part of Louisiana. The reasons for the interviews are revealed at the end of the episode: another body has turned up with the same ritualistic details, and the police suspect that, despite what Hart and Cohle thought, they didn’t catch the killer. The interviews are claustrophobic, in small airless rooms, in contrast to the panoramic scenes from 1995, and there’s a vague air of accusation.

Both men have changed in appearance over the 17 years, but Cohle’s screams a spectacular fall: from suited-up, skilled detective to scraggly-haired alcoholic. That transformation and the two former partners’ estrangement is at the heart of True Detective ’s central mystery, hanging in the air as tantalisingly as who killed Dora Lange. Just as The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and ER are genre-defining TV series, True Detective , with its quality acting, cinematic look, pace, moodiness (helped by T-Bone Burnett’s swampy, atmospheric soundtrack) and character-driven plot, is likely to become the one that other detective duos are judged by.

The past two series of Silk (BBC One, Monday) have delivered top courtroom drama. The strong cast is led by Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones, and Silk is written by a former barrister, Peter Moffat, so apart from the drama of the court cases – the plots were tense and varied – there was the sense that you were getting a peek into the rarefied world of a London legal chambers. And the working-class, northern England background of Peake’s character, Martha, gave a layer of class complexity to her steely ambition.

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