Two new miniseries this week are worth special mention — and couldn't be more different.
True Detective, which begins Sunday on HBO, is a combination series and miniseries, kind of like American Horror Story on FX. Each season is designed to tell a different, self-contained story, followed the next year by a new tale with new characters and sometimes even new actors. This first season of True Detective is an eight-hour murder mystery starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, neither of whom is expected to return next season.
Catch them while you can, because this first salvo of True Detective is riveting. My, what a narrative — and what performances. Just after saying goodbye to Treme, HBO presents another complicated drama series set in Louisiana. Novelist Nic Pizzolatto has written all eight episodes, and Cary Joji Fukunaga has directed them all, so there's a strong unity of vision. The closest things I've seen to True Detective on TV are Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, which I intend as the highest kind of praise.
Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a respected detective born and raised in Louisiana. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a former undercover cop from Texas with a tragic past and an even more tragic world view. Within weeks of being assigned to each other as partners, Hart and Cohle catch a gruesome, ritualistic murder: a young woman found dead in the woods, tied to a tree, posed unnaturally, draped with a crown made of antlers.
True Detective could have focused on that case exclusively, but it has other mysteries to solve: namely, the mysteries of Hart and Cohle, both of whom have secrets. And those secrets linger.
In a structural choice that makes this series even more fascinating, it takes place in different timelines: One is 1995, when the murder they're investigating occurs, and the other is 2012, when the two men are interrogated separately by another set of detectives investigating a disturbingly similar murder.
One typical scene shows how those two timelines intertwine: It begins in 1995, as Hart and Cohle examine the initial crime scene, with Hart asking his new partner to assess the evidence. Cohle takes notes and makes drawings in a giant ledger as they talk. Then the scene shifts to 2012, when first Hart, then Cohle, give separate accounts of their first impressions of the case.
True Detective is very smartly written and structured, and artfully photographed. But it's the performances that dazzle me the most here. Harrelson pulls off a nifty juggling act; he's funny one moment and ferocious the next. And McConaughey, who's in the midst of a midcareer resurgence, is flat-out superb as a detective so tightly wound that he doesn't sleep, he hallucinates while awake and he's prone to speaking either in long pessimistic monologues or cryptic monosyllables.
When Hart asks Cohle the simplest of questions — "Your mom still alive?" — Cohle answers with one word: "Maybe." And it's the way the two actors respond to one another that makes True Detective TV's latest must-see drama.
The Spoils Of Babylon isn't a drama, and isn't even must-see — but it's fun. Starting Thursday on IFC, it's a multipart production from Will Ferrell's Funny Or Die outlet with a very meta concept.
It pretends to be a lost period miniseries from a previous era — the era of such overblown, decade-spanning romances as The Thorn Birds — and stars Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins, Jessica Alba and others, with a theme song sung by Steve Lawrence.
It's acted, staged, written and directed like an intentionally bad Ed Wood movie. And for this pretend "lost masterpiece" unveiling, each episode is introduced by its alleged auteur, played by Will Ferrell in all-out Orson Welles-gone-to-seed mode. The costumes and tacky direction made me laugh — and so did Ferrell as writer-director-producer Eric Jonrosh, whose intros are filmed at an old-school Hollywood restaurant.
For the next few weeks on IFC, The Spoils of Babylon has good fun masquerading as high TV art. But for the next two months on HBO, True Detective is the real deal.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.