HBO has decided to try to make dramatic anthology series a thing again, and has put considerable resources into making their initial foray a winner. It’s got the expected top notch production values, cinematic feel, and a couple of genuine movie stars in Mathew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. They’re both terrific here, McConaughey in particular, who is having the damnedest career resurgence in his middle age. His character is potentially problematic, prone to grim philosophical pronouncements that should come out as hard-boiled cliché. But he finds a weariness that sidesteps by removing any sense that he thinks this world-weariness makes him a tough guy. He’s unimpressed by the whole of the world, and that includes his own negativity towards it. It’s a subtle gradation of performance, but it’s enough to take Rustin Cohle from eye-rolling to interesting for me.
Harrelson is the more grounded of the pair, but it is hinted that this is because he is less honest with himself. His Hart has a home life that seems to be mostly cordoned off from his work, whereas Cohle only has a home in the strictest sense that he pays rent for a roof over a bare mattress. And the show’s flashback structure (the men are being interviewed about a 1995 case in 2012) reveals that the two have gone in very different directions. Hart seems to be roughly the same guy, having progressed up the ladder a bit further, but still holding it together. Whereas Cohle is a disheveled drunk, still sharp in the mind but clearly far off the job and run down in appearance.
This device allows for shifting perspectives that keep the episode interesting as it moves at a pace that would charitably be called deliberate, but could also be called slow without sacrificing accuracy. These portions of the show are more compelling than baroque, Hannibal-lite murder tableau, because it’s here that we see the results of the different paths these men are on. For as antithetical as their appearances are in the 2012 segments, and despite the episode ending by positioning Cohle as a suspect for the present-day murder, it’s the buttoned-down Hart that sweats and stumbles more under questioning. Cohle meanwhile is perfectly comfortable demanding to smoke and drink his way through his interview, despite knowing all along that it’s actually an interrogation
Also keepings things interesting is the supporting cast, including Michelle Monaghan, Steve the Drunk from Deadwood, Lester and Brother Mouzone from The Wire, the One-Niner leader from Sons Of Anarchy, and the Kevin Dunn of Luck, Veep, and approximately 24,000 other supporting roles. They’re all solid, but it’s definitely the leads and their chemistry that carry the show. Sure, there’s a mystery in the ritualistic murder the guys are investigating, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly twisty or novel one. The series, at least in the premiere episode, is more interested in exploring the psyches of those detectives than the killer they’re chasing, and while there is a reveal at the end of the episode about the killer having supposedly been captured 17 years prior to the new murder, I’m not looking forward to finding out more about that as much as I am to just see McConaughey’s rub his character’s abundant collection of raw nerves up against the seedy sides of Louisiana.
TD may not have a great deal to add to the already overcrowded serial killer genre, but it has atmosphere to spare, some genuine philosophical issues on its mind, and terrific performances at its center. That it’s a contained, 8 episode story with no need to spin wheels to extend its lifespan to fit a traditional TV structure is also encouraging. The 13 episode cable drama season is just as arbitrary, and nearly as protracted as the traditional network 24, and seeing places like HBO and Netflix experimenting with different lengths and release schedules suggests that story is being allowed to dictate form to a greater extent, rather than vice versa. Also, McConaughey orders booze by brand name instead of just asking for “beer”, which is one of those things that us movie geeks appreciate. Yes, this should do nicely to ease the wait til Game Of Thrones comes back in April.