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McConaughey picks the small screen to showcase his career peak

Not a rippling ab in sight. McConaughey in True Detective. Sky Atlantic

There was a time, a long time, like from 1996 to about 2011, when many men couldn’t look at Matthew McConaughey’s mug without wanting to punch it. He was so good looking – tall, lean, tan and with that blonde curly hair that always seemed placed just so; and he seemed so smug and self-satisfied with it, like he knew he was God’s gift.

And there was a tension between the slick self-confidence he exuded and the audience’s feeling that acting chops had not been included amongst his many blessings. It seemed too that however much he insisted on just being a “reg’lar dude from good ol’ Texas” he was a manufactured star.

Yet here he is, according to some the “clear frontrunner” for the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. But more interestingly, it is on television that he is enjoying the greatest success of his career. He is a lead in True Detective, a series that already seems culturally essential.

McConaughey has been one of the most famous men in America for almost 20 years. Photographs of him flashing his pecs with wild abandon have appeared in all the weeklies. He was famously arrested playing the bongos naked while high. He was named People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2005. Yet, with all that, or maybe because of all of that, audiences didn’t seem to take to him. There’s a wonderful clip of Family Guy that beautifully expresses a large number of people’s views of McConaughey for most of the past 15 years. “You are just awful,” says Stewie. “You’re one of the worst actors in the history of film.”

All of this began to change in what now seems an intelligent and carefully orchestrated manner from 2011. This is something that has been well documented of late, but to sum up: in 2011, he gave a very fine performance as Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, a courtroom drama that seemed lean and lush and which got very good reviews but middling box-office sales.

Then more significantly, the same year, he also played the title role in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a disturbing noir in which McConaughey chanced playing a religious zealot with a penchant for murder and young girls. It was not a hit but McConaughey proved that he could bring something much more interesting to his roles than his looks – a presence, a threat, a character.

Since then, he’s been extraordinarily adventurous in his choice or roles. In 2012, he played Zac Efron’s older, kinkier, brother in the camp Gothic swampfest that is Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy. Jeff Nichols’ Mud turned out to be one of the most successful indie releases of the last year, with McConaughey in the title role as the romantic stranger who’s killed a man but returns, risking all, to win back the woman he loves.

During this time he changed people’s perceptions of him as a star and an actor to such an extent that in 2013 GQ named this shift in his career the McConaissance, but has now deemed this over – now it’s apparently the “McConaugh-reign”. Yet it’s worth remembering that in terms of the box office, the only real mainstream hits he’s had so far have been in supporting parts. First in Magic Mike, where the very theme of the film, how people turn themselves into sex objects for easy money, losing their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex, seemed uncomfortably resonant with McConaughey’s own career.

The old McConaughey

His other mainstream hit is of course his superb cameo as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lush and thieving mentor in The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s only on stage for a few minutes but he puts his stamp on the film as surely as DiCaprio. And these are his only two blockbuster hits since How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days in 2003, a full decade ago.

Here he is, unarguably at the peak of it with blockbuster hits such as Magic Mike and Wolf of Wall Street, as well as indie films that are already beginning to seem as significant and important (Mud, Killer Joe). He has worked with some of the most important directors (Scorcese, Soderbergh, Lee Daniels, Jeff Nichols, William Friedkin), has recieved great critical acclaim, is a front-runner for the Oscars. This is the moment where you’d expect a Hollywood star to get his pick of roles and name his price. And what are we seeing him on and in? True Detective for HBO. To me, this is the most interesting aspect of McConaughey’s recent career.

The first episode of True Detective aired in the UK on 22 February

Historically, TV stars – James Garner, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Will Smith – have all wanted to leave TV behind. Movies were where the big money, and the possibility of art both were. What this shows is that now, the move to TV is not seen as a step back. That actors at the top of their game and at the peak of box office hits, stars like Matthew McConaughey, are moving across to TV is a strong hint that the way we culturally rank different media is undergoing a seachange.

Apparently it is now in TV that actors can get the combination of serious drama, juicy roles and mainstream audiences that film no longer seems to offer. Whilst he may very well win the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, it is on television that McConaughey is proving what a truly great actor he is, and cementing his involvement in the culturally essential work of today.