TV Review: HBO’s “True Detective” — A Work in Progress

Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts for “True Detective” have their moments but, self-consciously literary, they also are painfully overwritten.

A scene from HBO's "True Detective"

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in a scene from HBO’s “True Detective.”

By Gerald Peary

Somehow, he parlayed an awesome deal. Nic Pizzolatto, author of an obscure short story collection and but one novel, the well-received Galveston (2010), got HBO to back an eight-part dramatic series, True Detective, for which he is both the Executive Producer and, a coveted credit, the sole writer. More, the series, which debuts January 12, coaxed to television as its co-stars two A-List film stars, Woody Harrelson (yes, he was once on Cheers), and Matthew McConaughey, who, in 2013, was America’s most cheered movie actor for the trifecta of Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Pizzolatto hails from New Orleans, and that might have something to do with his cred and allure. So many TV shows these days are shot in Louisiana, and not just the expected cooking programs. I mean prestigious ones like Treme and True Blood and, lower on the scale, Real World: New Orleans, and, much lower, Tough Love New Orleans and Cajun Pawn Stars. True Detective is yet another Louisiana entry, many of its exteriors shot in the golden glow of the bayou countryside, where swamps abound and Spanish moss drips from oak trees. The story? A damned familiar one, told in flashback to 1995. Harrelson and McConaughey are mismatched cops, Louisiana State Police, assigned to work together solving a creepy killing. A 19-year-old runaway with a history of hooking was found tied up and dead under a tree, her head covered with antlers in some kind of Mansonesque ritual. Who done it?

I’ve been able to sample the first three episodes of the series, which are, despite the charismatic leads, uneven, still searching for a rhythm, and with very awkward jumps in time. Pizzolatto’s scripts have their moments but, self-consciously literary, they also are painfully overwritten. The stories are strewn with the expected Southern gothic characters, often hard to understand with their thick backwater accents. And the interior setup got tiring over my three hours of watching: in a room in a police station, two fuzz in 2012 endlessly cross-examine Harrelson and McConaughey, now ex-cops, about what happened years ago in their search for the psycho killer. What’s pleasingly new: both of the interrogators (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) are African-American. When have you ever seen that on a cop show or in a movie?

Woody Harrelson plays Marty Hart, a lawman with, at home, a nice wife and two kids. In episode one, he’s a fairly dull average guy appalled to be put in a squad car with such a loony, bitter, chronically unhappy partner: McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, who sulks and spews nihilist, misanthropist philosophy: “We should walk hand in hand into extinction.” Of course, Rust is weighed down by a crushing backstory. His child was run over, his wife divorced him, he killed people in the name of the law, he drank, he popped Quaaludes.

Episode two gives us a different Marty, an obsessive philanderer who currently is sleeping with a busty young woman. Does it mean something special for the series, a “clue,” that he brings his handcuffs to her apartment for some sex games? Or that, in episode three, he gets madly jealous, breaks into his amour’s apartment, and leaps on her lover? Meanwhile, his wife (Gone Baby Gone’s Michelle Monaghan) suffers at home and, in a major rebuff to Marty’s manhood, invites Rust into their house for an afternoon chat. Rust might be morose and lonely, but she senses something sweet there also that’s missing in her devilish husband.

Meanwhile, back in 1995, our two police, though mostly estranged, ride around Louisiana trying to find people who knew the murdered girl. Pretty conventional stuff. Plus True Detective keeps cutting back to 2012, The Present, and those laborious interrogations. After three slow episodes, it’s still not revealed what the African-American cops are after in obsessively pumping Rust and Marty. But perhaps those scenes are a thin excuse for the two stars to show off their acting chops, especially McConaughey. Sitting among emptied beer cans, chain smoking, he has been supplied with harangues of Dostoyevskian self-loathing which go on and on and on. These speeches might be considered profound by screenwriter Pizzolatto. But I agree with Harrelson’s exasperated Marty telling Rust, “I’m begging you to shut the fuck up …. I want you to stop saying odd shit.”

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.


  1. Sue Ladr on January 17, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    My daughter worked on the set of True Detectives, so I had to watch it of course, even though I don’t subscribe to HBO. I’m glad I did because I like the show, even though my daughter hadn’t prepared me to like it. I find it amusing that the critic cited the “shut the fuck up” dialogue, it was a fave of mine, too, although I appreciated the script a lot more than the critic seems to. What could be funnier than a critic who decries the ordinary, and doesn’t recognize something better when he sees it. “Shut the fuck up” gave us an insight into the small mindedness of Marty, and as far as I’m concerned, is one of many examples of the eloquence of the script!

  2. Gerald Peary on January 19, 2014 at 1:42 am

    I’m glad you liked True Detective. In fact, it has a 100% rating among regular folks on Rotten Tomatoes. But I have no idea what your attack on me means: “What could be funnier than a critic who decried the ordinary, and doesn’t recognize something better when he sees it.”

    • Sam Stevenson on January 23, 2014 at 11:12 pm

      I’m about to begin episode two myself. I have to agree that the writing is straining for a certain vibe, almost like the movie Se7en mixed with the overused trope of Louisiana voodoo/mysticism. I also find it a little hard to take Mcconaughey’s character seriously, because he alternates between seeming like a genuinely depressed guy with personal issues, and sounding like if Holden Caulfield found some Trent Reznor LP’s. I guess it’s a credit to the actor for getting past the cheesy dialogue. Despite all that I do wanna see what happens, so I’ll stick with it. Great review by the way!

  3. AJ on February 27, 2014 at 4:15 am

    Yeah…. You’re imbecilic ‘review’ didn’t work out so well now did it. Care for a do-over….?

    • Gerald Peary on April 7, 2014 at 12:39 pm

      Hi, AJ: I’ll stick with my imbecilic review. Why “didn’t it work out so well”? Because audiences overwhelmingly embraced the series? I acknowledge that, but I’m not going to back down from my reservations about the series.

  4. Tom on November 17, 2014 at 3:34 am

    Fully agree with this review. The nihilistic speeches sound like who wrote them really believed they were incredibly profound and edgy, but they are in fact very shallow and many teenagers today could spew them out.

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