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TV review: True Detective has two characters in search of a story

Every review of True Detective has seen the writer frantic in their rush to scatter adoring adjectives. It's mesmerising, they say. It's brilliant, breath-taking, magnificent. I do believe Sky sent out a thesaurus with every preview DVD.

The story begins back in 1995 with two mismatched detectives, Martin Hart and Rust Cohle, working on an occult murder in Louisiana. Martin (Woody Harrelson) is the brusque cop with a heart, a man trying to raise a family whilst dealing with death each day. His new partner, Rust (Matthew McConaughey), is nervous and haunted, given to monologues of bleak philosophy which have Martin thumping the steering wheel in annoyance.

Time shifts and we jump forward to the present day. The two detectives are being interviewed separately about the case and the disintegration of their relationship. Martin is confident, rosy and well-fed whereas Rust seems to have endured a total breakdown. He is thin and straggle-haired, endlessly smoking and needing a few beers before he can continue.

As we move back and forth through time we follow the detectives on their hunt for the satanic killer, then see them older and wiser, reflecting on their actions. But what isn't apparent is why they're being questioned about this old case and what happened to shatter their partnership, leaving Rust in such a stricken state.

As Episode 1 develops it becomes clear that this series is not going to be a typical grisly cop show. The murder is indeed horrible but, after this initial flirt with the gruesome, we zoom in on the detectives; it's their strange and tetchy relationship which is going to be the focus here. The murder is simply a plot device to force these two men together.

So there are no car chases, no fist fights, no torches bobbing down a dark alley to gleam upon blood-stained cobbles. Everything moves slowly because this show is about psychology, not violence, and it's about the detectives, not the baddies.

Indeed, Louisiana itself is more of a presence than the bad guys or the murder victim. Much time and clever technical effort is spent on evoking the oppressive nature of this flat and neglected state. The sluggish swamps, long dusty roads, endlessly meandering rivers and the maddening heat are all brought forward to subtly raise the tension. Our detectives sweat in their car. They tug at their damp collars and bitch and swear. They're cynical and gruff and tormented. This is film noir in the blazing sun.

Such devoted attention to the landscape makes the show a marvel to watch, but there are plenty of Attenborough documentaries out there if you just want to gawp at nature. The fact is that True Detective moves as fast as a Louisiana swamp. This pace may work in the cinema where the audience are captive but it's risky to do this with TV. If the action is unfurling so slowly, can the programme makers trust that we'll come back next week?

Had the show been presented to me as a box set, or as a complete series on Netflix, then I would have clicked ahead to the next episode and embarked on a 'binge' to see if the programme eventually delivered but, as it is, I don't think the memory of two troubled guys driving around languid Louisiana is enough to pull me back. There simply isn't enough happening.

In this respect, True Detective is similar to a Cormac McCarthy novel. His books are packed with atmosphere and stunning imagery but they have minimal plot. This means they benefit from the reader being totally absorbed in them, reading them straight through in one unholy gorging of violence and despair. The author is creating a world, not a story. Should you wander off to make some tea, or pick up another book, you're dropping out of that world, and it's far too easy to disconnect from it - especially when you're surrounded by the cosy comforts of central heating and Twitter and ready meals - and there is rarely a roaring plot to hook you neatly back in. So it's all or nothing with a McCarthy book. He is not an author to be dipped into on your train ride to work. You must be immersed absolutely.

Likewise with True Detective. If we had the freedom to choose when we watched it, and at what rate, then we could achieve that total immersion in the sultry heat of Louisiana. But with it being rationed out at one snippet per week, the tension sags, the heat dissipates and we wander off elsewhere. A good story can be put down and picked up, but an atmosphere is not so pliable.

Plot is a different matter, which is why my American series of choice at the moment is The Walking Dead. It is relatively flimsy where character is concerned, with each person loosely conforming to a stereotype - the hero with a conscience, the wise old man, the mother figure etc - but the story is cracking and drags me back, helplessly, week after week for the simple reason that I'm dying to know what happens next.

Is it wrong of me to want a good story?

So that's the flaw with True Detective. It's heavy on character but lacking in plot, and if Sky are making viewers wait a whole seven days before getting to see what happens next, they need to be damn sure that something happens first.

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