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True Detective needs to convince it is not just another crime drama

Breaking new ground? Sky Atlantic

Under cover of night a man carries what looks to be a dead body into the unknown, before a field is set alight. Later, a pair of mismatched detectives – Marty (Woody Harrelson), an apparently affable family man, and Rust (Matthew McConnaughey) an enigmatic outsider – roll up to the crime scene. There in the open, displayed in gory glory, is the naked, trussed-up body of a young woman. Welcome to Louisiana and the opening scenes of HBO’s latest mega-hit, True Detective.

So, another “unlikely-cop-duo-forced by-circumstance-to-become-partners”. Another crime drama built around the brutalised body of a female murder victim – here, laid out grand-guignol style in a hideous tableau which sees her adorned with antlers. Again? I can’t be alone in feeling disenfranchised and exasperated by TV crime dramas seemingly searching for ever more sensationalist ways of grabbing our attention by savouring atrocious violence against women. (Yes The Fall (BBC 2013) – I am looking at you). Back in 1991 when Prime Suspect took on this territory, it felt like the series was testing boundaries, making a critical point about the genre’s testosterone overload by twinning its female victims with a richly written woman cop fighting insufferable sexism. Now, it just looks lazy.

But let us pause and rewind. What else do these opening moments contain? The crime scene lies in the past, and is intercut with the cops being interviewed some 17 years later. This conceit is intriguing – why are Rust and Marty being questioned and filmed? How does this present relate to the historical opening?. Equally, one cannot fail to be drawn in by the impressive central performances. Harrelson plays confidently off McConaughey, who continues his captivating professional transformation in a commanding star-turn here. Might my initial scepticism be unfounded? Could True Detective be setting the scene to do something different, to take the genre somewhere newly imagined?

Woody Harrelson. Sky Atlantic.

As we get fully immersed in the UK – the fourth episode was broadcast on March 15 – and as the US ponders the season one finale (demand for which caused HBO Go to crash) the answer to these questions for many commentators appears to have been – yes.

The smart toying with temporality has been enthusiastically received for its novelty, time-shifting 17 years between the 1995 of the original murder inquiry and the 2012 of the interviews. In piecemeal style, we try to figure out what has happened in the spaces in between; the outcome of the investigation; the real reason for these filmed interviews; the breakdown of the (always fractious) relationship between the partners.

Our curiosity is piqued, then, not only by the dead woman in the field, but by the unfolding character studies of these two men. At first, the emotionally blank Rust particularly intrigues; his meditative musings, occasionally accompanied by “chemical flashbacks”, take the dialogue sometimes into creakingly self-conscious philosophising, but sometimes into something akin to poetry (on the death of his daughter following a coma: “somewhere in that blackness she slipped off into another, deeper kind. Ain’t that a beautiful way to go out? Painlessly, as a happy child”). But by episode four, the philandering Marty’s capacity for hypocrisy and rage suggests that just possibly, the function served by his well-worn character type might also get to divert somewhere more interesting, as his obsessive promotion of family values in interview is undermined everywhere by the dysfunctional relationships we observe.

And herein lies the source of much chagrin for many of the dissenting commentators unconvinced by the series’ rapid ascendancy to “landmark TV”. While Michelle Monaghan as Marty’s wife Maggie has garnered praise for making the most of the genre’s standard “wronged-wife-&-mother” role, viewers looking to get their teeth into some interesting female characters are going to leave The Rust and Marty Show hungry.

Despite my initial apprehension, the series hasn’t (yet?) dwelt overtly on the body of the murdered woman it opens with. Nevertheless, “hookers” (dead and alive), unhappy wives, girlfriends and mothers, in varying degrees of virtual absence – that’s our lot. In this respect, so far at least, the show feels disappointingly regressive. One might also point to the lack of racial diversity among the cast, and in this respect it will be intriguing to see if the two black cops running the interviews will become anything more than a pair of anonymous figures behind the camera.

‘Wronged-wife-and-mother.’ Sky Atlantic

Still, there is something haunting in the series. Images and dialogue linger in the mind. A boat rolls by behind a hill on an unseen waterway, as if the background is floating away. In the recessionary world of 2014, Rust’s 1995 observation at the city morgue that, “This place is like someone’s memory of a town” feels peculiarly piercing.

Writer Nic Pizzolatto has said that he didn’t want this to be “just another serial killer show”. To my mind, so far, it is in some of the literary flair to the dialogue and the arresting imagery reaped from the landscapes and poverty of its Louisiana setting that it may best succeed in bringing new inflections to bear.

Here in the UK, most of the questions raised by True Detective remain unanswered, including whether or not the series will deliver on the hype from across the Atlantic – we will know soon enough, since a lot can happen in 17 years, and indeed in four episodes.

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