Could True Detective be the drama of the year?

Believe the hype! Sky Atlantic's latest buy-in from HBO might be one of their greatest, says Paul Whitelaw

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Could True Detective be the drama of the year?
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It's only February, but already True Detective has been hailed as one of the TV highlights of 2014. Another hit for estimable US cable network HBO, it's been described as “breathtaking” by TIME Magazine, “spectacular” by the Wall Street Journal, and as "offering a singular voice that's unlike almost anything else on TV” by Variety.

Not to be outdone, Entertainment Weekly thought it “a tour de force” for its stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, while USA Today exhausted their adjective quota by describing it as “mesmerising, frightening, unsettling, real and flat-out brilliant.”

So what's so special about it? At first glance it looks like just another slick cop show, albeit one that's somehow managed to snag Hollywood heavyweights in starring roles.

As Louisiana homicide detectives Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle, Harrelson and McConaughey have the sort of mismatched chemistry we've come to expect from fictional law enforcers. Marty is apparently an unpretentious copper and devoted family man, while Rustin is an eloquent nihilist, insomniac and alcoholic who lives alone, devours books about murderers, and meditates daily with a crucifix. Why, they're the original odd couple.

Embroiled in a hunt for an ostentatious serial killer in a queasy southern Gothic milieu, our troubled anti-heroes appear to be treading on very familiar territory. But you don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to discover True Detective's ulterior motives.

Written and created by Louisiana-born novelist Nic Pizolatto, it doesn't shy away from its literary ambitions. Rustin is prone to doom-laden soliloquies, each delivered with understated relish by McConaughey. The spectre of novelist Cormac McCarthy haunts practically every aspect of Pizolatto's atmospheric world of cops, drunks, prostitutes and killers. Repeated references are made to The King in Yellow, a collection of horror stories written in 1895 about a play that speaks an unbearable truth and drives all who read it insane. And the overarching "anthology" conceit – each season of eight episodes will tell a different self-contained story, with a different cast – enhances its novelistic aura.

Set in both 1995 and 2012, True Detective gradually reveals that the murder plot is of less importance than the haunted psyches of Rustin and Marty. Why has their original investigation been re-opened 17 years after the fact? And why do the police seem more interested in their relationship than the crime itself?

Tension arises not from the hunt for the killer, but from the engrossing drip-feed of information about these complex men. Much like Twin Peaks, this is a crime drama in which character and ambience are paramount. It takes existing tropes and subverts them gleefully.

It also charts another stage in the remarkable renaissance of Matthew McConaughey, who in the last few years has shed his former rom-com image to reveal himself as an extraordinary actor. His mesmerising performance as the damaged Rustin – which could so easily have been badly overplayed - follows a scene-stealing cameo in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and an Oscar nomination for his starring role in Dallas Buyers Club. But one mustn't overlook Harrelson's less showy performance: he's as reliably terrific as ever.

Ideal viewing for fans of slow-burning adult drama, True Detective is an admirably uncompromising puzzle featuring two fine actors at the top of their game. For once, believe the hype.

True Detective starts on Saturday 22 February at 9pm on Sky Atlantic