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Dead Tree Alert: HBO’s Existential Detective Story

True Detective has great performances, if it's not yet a great series.

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My column in this week’s print TIME (subscription required) is about HBO’s newest high-starpower drama, True Detective, which is very familiar, only different:

The story of much TV drama lately has been a serial pattern of serial killers. Hannibal, The Following, Dexter–all probing the platinum brains of high-IQ murderers (or, on Bates Motel, murderers-to-be). Questions that were once daring have become rote: Aren’t killers fascinating? Aren’t they ingenious? Isn’t their aesthetic dedication to gore strangely beautiful? (Answers: Not really, Who cares and Ugh, I just ate.)

HBO’s new crime story True Detective (which debuts Jan. 12) in some ways is one more human pelt tacked on that same wall. What distinguishes it is that it’s not about the bodies or the killer (at least, in the four episodes I’ve seen) but about the investigators–and about the soul, morality and God, or the lack thereof.

That’s all I can liberate from the TIME paywall here. In short, though: I liked True Detective a lot, although as with House of Cards, so far I feel like I’m watching great performances rather than a great series. Whatever you’ve heard about Matthew McConaughey’s astounding performance as Rust Cohle is true, and maybe even sells it short. He essentially plays two roles: first, as a stoic, haunted detective in 1995, then as the gone-to-seed version of the same man in 2012. And his acting may unfairly overshadow costar Woody Harrelson, who in a more understated way peels back the layers of Cohle’s (outwardly) more stable partner, Martin Hart.

But often True Detective is too much about the performances–there’s something very actorly about it, setting up McConaughey in particular with set pieces and monologues that, while exquisitely written on the page and probably potent Emmy-bait, would be twice as effective if there were half as many. It can be ostentatiously, stagily bleak. And as well-drawn as Hart and Cohle are, everyone around them is much more flat: Hart’s long-suffering wife (Michelle Monaghan), fellow cops and suspects, and the hookers, hard-luck cases, and Bible-thumpers that make up its rural Louisiana.

For all that, when True Detective is good, it’s breathtaking, and watching half of its eight-episode first season was enough to commit me to stick with the rest. To read my full print column–and the rest of TIME’s digital and print content–you can subscribe here.