'True Detective' Premiere Recap: HBO Just Solved the "How to Make a Good Cop Show" Mystery

HBO has just hand delivered a thing of beauty: True Detective , starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Delivered in just eight episodes, each season of the brand-new HBO series will follow a different set of detectives on a different case, à la American Horror Story's various trips down legend lane — a stolen move, but nonetheless a great one. And right out of the gate, the series lends a level of gravity to the typical prime time spectacle of two detectives investigating a heinous crime. Against all odds, it's a "cop show" that's actually worth our precious, precious time.

While the idea of the series is certainly the the bright spot, sprucing up a genre whose attempted highbrow iterations have failed often and spectacularly — apologies to everyone involved in the making of The Killing — it's most definitely one of the darkest shows on television. Right off the bat, we meet detective duo Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey) who are being questioned for temporarily unknown reasons. It's been 10 years since they worked together as partners — a relationship they held onto for seven years — and they're being asked about the first time Cohle visited Hart's family for dinner. From that point on, the story is told by switching between 2012 and 1995 flashbacks.

Through these turgid reminisces, we come to the center of the detectives' relationship and it defies what we've learned — on television, anyway — about the detective-partner relationship. Neither side is the one whose heart is too big, butting heads with their cold partner. Neither man is a rookie with no regard for the rules while the elder partner has to reign him in and learns something about bending the rules in the process. Cop stereotypes are locked away in favor of two truly intriguing characters who'd be fascinating regardless of their profession.

Hart's the easier of the two to figure out — this early in the game, anyway: He's the "normal" partner who's been with the department for years. He's got a wife (Michelle Monaghan) and two daughters and while he's incensed by Cohle's unconventional manner (more on that in a bit), he continually defends the detective and even tells the chief to keep him on their first big case during a flashback to 1995.

Cohle, on the other hand, is being interrogated somewhat antagonistically. In 1995, he says he doesn't drink, then in a nervous mistake, gets drunk before attending dinner at Hart's home. In 2012, he smokes during his interview and demands a case of Lone Star — it is after noon on his usual day off. The flashbacks give us more of an insight into his strange demeanor: He's incredibly smart and perceptive, but not in the hyperbolic CBS drama sort of way, he's got unconventional information gathering techniques (his legal pad notes have earned him the nickname "The Taxman"), and he lives alone because his daughter died and his marriage collapsed shortly thereafter.

In 1995, Hart and Cohle's big case reveals itself to be that of a killer who drugged, raped, strangled, and bound a "sometimes" prostitute before dressing her up in a crown of antlers and rose branches, tattooing her with slightly tribal swirl patters, and surrounding her with what one local calls "devil catchers." He calls the killing a fantasy ritual, immediately surmises that the woman is a prostitute and causes his partner to attempt to dig into him a bit. Of course, once Hart hears about Cohle's crucifix in his home being used as a comfort (so that he can meditate on the concept of Christ giving himself up to death) and about Cohle's ideas that humans "programmed" to have delusional self-awareness, he regrets ever even attempting to get to know him.

Later, at Hart's house for dinner, when Cohle shows up drunk, Hart still manages to show incredible tenderness and compassion when Cohle apologizes and explains he was gathering evidence for their case in a bar and he was tempted in a way he hasn't been in a long time — unbeknownst to Hart, it's Cohle's late daughter's birthday.

And while there are few women who aren't victims in this small-town Louisiana drama, Maggie Hart (Monaghan) does manage to step somewhat outside of the sweet, hospitable Southern housewife role. Yes, she's sweet to her husband and their guest, but there's a level of depth in Monaghan's eyes when she asks Cohle about his past and learns that his daughter died when she was a child. When Cohle leaves the room, she asks Hart why he hasn't asked his partner about his past — he knows nothing of the wife and daughter, and doesn't care to — she responds with a complicated look that conveys some disappointment, some sadness, and absolutely zero of "the nag" role that TV policeman's wives are often boxed into.

McConaughey and Harrelson's performances would make True Detectives worth watching on their own, but the mystery is more than complex enough to hold our attention. It is a little troubling that once again, a battered, tortured woman is at the center of the series — we got enough of that with last year's water cooler cop show The Following on Fox. However, because the story manages to remove the splashy shock from the surface, showing the victims only briefly and only in a very clinical, analytic sense, this season's mystery feels tragic and dark without falling into exploitative territory.

Maintaining that level of sterility is a tough feat to accomplish when you've got a killer who very clearly commits sexually charged crimes, and his first victim is found to be a hooker with a questionable past, but by keeping the beat of the series at a slow, methodical pace, True Detective keeps the sensational elements at bay. We're made to focus on details (Cohle's unique personality, Hart's wheels constantly turning in an undisclosed pattern in his head, for a start) and the crime as a set of circumstances to be connected and a mystery unraveled; not a violent sideshow for audiences to gawk at.

By episode's end, Hart and Cohle have figured out that the victim is a woman named Dora. Her ex-husband is in jail and had no idea she was even dead. Their leads on potential killers are nil, but the town is panicking and the narrative that the crime is "anti-Christian" emerges, bringing the Louisiana Governor's cousin, Reverend Tuttle to the station to personally announce the creation of a new "anti-Christian" crime task force. Cohle finds this absurd — because the ritual was not a Christian one, it doesn't necessarily mean the killing was some sort of protest against Christianity. And with that, somehow, the series manages to shoulder another heavy conceptual load — one it seems more than able to carry.

The murder is almost absurdly connected to the six-year-old a disappearance of a local girl when Hart and Cohle follow what was originally a cold lead in the search for the antlered victim's identity. They continue to investigate it by visiting the missing girl's relatives. In their shed, Cohle finds a "devil catcher" similar to the ones from Dora's ritualistic resting place. That discovery is left as the sort of 1995 cliffhanger, while the 2012 one serves as the two in the episode's one-two punch.

Per the investigators in 2012, we learn that a killing similar to the 1995 one has occurred, despite Hart and Cohle capturing the original killer during their time as partners. It's not explicitly mentioned, but the judgmental questions about Cohle being lobbed at Hart suggest that Cohle's "strange" ways have rendered him suspicious now that the captured murderer has supposedly reemerged. If he was captured, then who's performing these kills? The detectives assume Cohle knows something and he confirms it when he demands, as the episode's dynamic closer, "You'd better start asking the right fucking questions."

While True Detective is chock full of mysteries, each one feels natural in its world rather than something concocted to make sense of an excess of characters or to keep the attention of an audience with A.D.D. In fact, each piece of the fantastic human puzzle is delivered so carefully and with such thought, that in one blink, you might just lose everything.

This is the cop show we always thought was possible, and now it's very much a reality.

Images: HBO (4)