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'True Detective' review: Matthew McConaughey is mostly excellent

Matthew McConaughey stars in HBO's

Matthew McConaughey stars in HBO's "True Detective." (July 26, 2012) Credit: Nina Ruggiero

If you'll indulge me, let's just get my basic opinion about HBO's "True Detective" out on the table right now: It's a winner.

But it's also an oddball, and a weirdo, and an interesting-cum-strange companion, and someone -- um, something -- you won't mind spending time with.

Sort of like someone you meet at a party whom you find engaging but are not entirely certain whether you want to become fast friends with, either.

Does this make sense? No, of course it doesn't. We're talking about a TV series -- actually, anthology. (This being the first.) And we're talking about "True Detective."  So, to the review (and thanks for your indulgence, by the way): 

"True Detective," HBO, Sunday, 9

What it's about: Under a spreading tree in a vast Louisiana sugar cane field, the body is placed. But by whom, and why? Signs point to a ritualistic murder, although when Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) arrive the next morning, Cohle also suspects a serial killer. "Her body is a paraphilic love map,” he says. “I guarantee you, this wasn't his first."

Working their first case together, Cohle and Hart aren't are quite sure what to make of each other, either. Hart regards his strange partner with suspicion: "Baby, trust me," he tells his wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). "You don't want to pick this man's brain."

Then ... fast-forward 17 years to the present day. Cohle and Hart are leading different lives outside of the force. They are also -- separately -- being debriefed by two cops about the long-ago murder.

This eight-parter was written and created by Nic Pizzolatto.

My say: "True Detective" is a straight-ahead cop story with a twist, and a compelling one: It's often more about the cops than the murder they're investigating. Like a pair of boxers, they circle each other, looking not for an advantage as much as mutual understanding. Each is a cipher to the other, with a vast gulf in sensibility and life experience separating them.

The real pleasure of this series is watching them peel away the layers to this particular onion, often on long car drives across a vast, wet, undifferentiated Louisiana landscape. Cohle -- McConaughey is mostly excellent here -- is like a Cajun Nietzsche, with a bitter dose of Hobbes. He muses about the meaningless of existence and the futility of humanity while Hart, with his own closetful of secrets and delusions, never quite figures out that Cohle is really talking about him.

The real problem with "True Detective" are those flash-forwards to the present day: Younger Cohle, at least, is interesting. The older version is gaseous and his maunderings often stop the show cold. This may work as a literary device -- Pizzolatto is a highly regarded novelist -- but not necessarily as a TV one.

Bottom line: Yes, I'm on board for all eight, but those flash-forwards better get interesting fast.

Grade: B+

 (And of course we have a at least the first few seconds of this...and Newsday app viewers, please head on over to


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