From the start, True Detective oozes quality. It's got two full-on Hollywood stars in the lead roles, it's shot like a quality movie and it's decompressed style is a sign of faith that at the high of US TV there is an audience that will tune in just for the sheer craft of a thing. Following a bizarre, ritual murder, mismatched Detectives Cohle and Hart deal with the investigation whilst managed their personal lives, and a web of sleeze, corruption and deceit. Now the thing is, this isn't the half of it, because the show is more notable for things other than it's main story.
So the thing that I really fell for, early on, is the structure they've gone for. Told mostly in flashback as Cohle and Hart are interviewed by Detectives on another case, we switch between the two characters points of view as they recount both this initial investigation and later on a flare-up several years later. The distance between the characters now and then is unpicked as subtext, but more importantly what you see on the screen often doesn't match what you're being told in the voice-over. The truth, it seems, it illusive and hard to pin down for everyone. I'm not sure if you're supposed to buy into the idea of Cohle as a suspect for a later crime, but I never bought it - even though I could see why the cops would suspect him - but its a neat device the show uses to its maximum.
I miss it when it's gone, frankly, and I think thats why the last couple of episodes lose a little of their power.
The other big strength is how the shows characters are slowly unpacked. True Detective adds itself to the roster of quality television that is talking about the crisis of modern manhood (see also, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc) especially in a dynamite performance from Woody Harrelson as Hart. He's also unfocused rage, a hypocrite buried in his own contradictions, and he's fascinating, and compelling, without ever losing his essentially sympathetic humanity. Similarly Matthew McConaghey gets what feels like a show-defining rambling performance, standing on the edge of sanity, yet still being the shows voice of reason.
This laser focus on these two men does leave the other characters out in the cold, especially Hart's wife, Maggie, who puts in a game performance in a peripheral role, and nearly everyone else - including our eventual perpetrator - exists solely as foils for these two. In some ways its a shame but as the only 8 episodes we're going to get with these characters, I can live with it, assuming its not going to be a bad habit going forward. And of course for all its classy delivery, True Detective is rooted in the pulp tradition of bad men fighting badder men, so at least it's thematically appropriate.
In the end, it sort of all comes together. The show does loose a little energy as it moves away from its flashback structure, and gets a little less clever, and all the occult, Robert Chambers references serve to be little more than window dressing that ties back to the inner conflicts of the characters, rather than some external, occult conspiracy. On balance, I think this years other anthology detective show, Fargo, delivers slightly better, but its a very closely run thing.