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HBO's 'True Detective' with Harrelson, McConaughey is an unusual case

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On paper, the premise of the new HBO anthology series "True Detective" — two mismatched cops investigating the murder of a prostitute — hardly sounds like the most inventive idea; even the title borders on generic.

Minutes into the pilot episode, which premieres Jan. 12, Woody Harrelson's character, Martin Hart, complains that his misanthropic partner, Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, would "pick a fight with the sky [if he] didn't like its shade of blue."

It's the first inkling of tension between the men who, as is all but required of TV detectives, are temperamental opposites.

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But though it is a murder mystery that embraces some of the genre's conventions, "True Detective," which jumps among three time frames to follow the case over the course of 17 years, is as much moody two-hander as crime procedural.

The tale begins in 1995, when newly paired partners Hart and Cohle are assigned to investigate the ritualistic murder of a young woman whose body is found in a sugar cane field in southern Louisiana. Cohle is a brooding loner and recovering alcoholic, prone to dark philosophical ruminations about human consciousness that are a source of constant irritation for Hart, a self-described "regular-type dude" and married father of two who'd prefer to shoot the breeze over a few cold ones.

"We get along real well in real life," says McConaughey via Skype from Los Angeles, where, as if to prove his point, he's cozied up on a hotel couch next to Harrelson. The laid-back Texans, who first bonded 15 years ago on "EDtv," share an obvious rapport that's palpable even through cyberspace. The last time they worked together, on the 2008 comedy "Surfer, Dude," they spent their days enjoying smoothies beachside in Malibu, where Harrelson's sustainable bus sat parked next to McConaughey's Airstream trailer.

Needless to say, things were different this time around. The tense dynamic between Hart and Cohle is an essential part of the series and, for McConaughey at least, it meant keeping his distance on set. "One of the challenges that I noted for myself early on is that 'Boy, Woody and I are going to have to keep from getting on each other's frequency.'"

Adds Harrelson, "He's the opposite of an island. He's the most accessible, gregarious, sociable guy. For me, it was weird because he's in character all the … time. In a way I suppose it's kind of Method." Pausing momentarily, he directs a knowing glance at his costar. "It may be rhythm method — I don't know."

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"True Detective" arrives on the small screen at an opportune moment for McConaughey. After a string of roles in mediocre romantic comedies that traded on his Southern charm and toned pecs, the actor has been on a professional hot streak the last two years with well-received turns in "The Lincoln Lawyer," "Killer Joe," "Magic Mike" and "Mud." He's now enjoying a Golden Globe nomination for his transformational performance as an AIDS-afflicted good ol' boy in "Dallas Buyers Club."

The actor, whose previous television work was limited to a handful of guest spots on shows like "Eastbound & Down" and "King of the Hill," signed on to the project early in its development, before his career renaissance was in full swing. "I knew he was definitely on a new path to do work that was more gratifying to him," says series director Cary Fukunaga. "And that meant to me a certain amount of dedication. I knew we were going to get him at a really good time."

For Harrelson, that rare star to make the transition from a beloved sitcom to a successful film career, "True Detective" represents his first regular series role since "Cheers" ended in 1993.

But the project is notable for reasons other than the caliber of its leads. "True Detective" represents a bold creative risk even on a network known for its ambition. All eight episodes were scripted by Nic Pizzolatto, a largely unproven screenwriter with one previous series credit to his name. In an unusual feat for a cable series, the entire first season was directed by a single filmmaker, Fukunaga, from the feature-film world.

That's not all: Should it be renewed, "True Detective" will focus on an entirely different mystery each season and will feature an all-new cast, characters and setting, meaning that even if the network has a hit, it won't have a franchise.

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The series is the brainchild of Pizzolatto, a novelist and literature professor at DePauw University in Indiana who decided in summer 2010 to try his hand at script writing. One day, as the series' creator and sole writer was scribbling away in his Moleskine, Pizzolatto began to hear Cohle's voice in his head.

"It's one of those things that happens to writers if you work diligently, a character who's been living inside you for a long time, you just suddenly find a vehicle for them to live," he remembers.

The story evolved into the pilot script for "True Detective," which he used as a sample to earn a spot in the writers' room for "The Killing," AMC's somber remake of the wildly popular Danish crime drama. Pizzolatto wrote two episodes of the show, including the infamous first-season finale "Orpheus Descending" — a.k.a. The One Where We Didn't Find Out Who Killed Rosie Larsen — but left shortly into the second season to focus on "True Detective."

"Seeing what ended up airing, I was a little unsatisfied with what we'd done," he says. "If I'm going to have my name on something and it fails, I want it to fail because I failed, not because I was serving something I didn't really believe in."

Once Pizzolatto had completed writing a second episode, his management company Anonymous Content paired him with a fellow client, Fukunaga, who'd earned rave notices for his vivid 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre." The audacious decision to use a single director for the entire season was, says Fukunaga, a way to lure feature film talent to television.

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It worked: McConaughey was attached within six months. "I couldn't wait to read what came out of Rustin Cohle's mouth," he recalls. "The whole piece had such a clear identity. This writer has created such a world in two episodes. I thought, 'You can't screw this up.'"

He was instrumental in enlisting Harrelson, who says he "wouldn't have done it otherwise."

As realized by Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, "True Detective" is a talky and unsettling exploration of existential themes that rises above the standard gratuitous crime procedural — and, despite its premium cable provenance, does so without an excess of blood and viscera.

"It was never my ambition to make 'CSI: Louisiana,'" says Pizzolatto. "I have no interest to enter some kind of contest of who can make the most disgusting serial killer."

The crime, says Fukunaga, is a MacGuffin, a hook that lures viewers into the real story: the relationship between Hart and Cohle.

"Even though it's called 'True Detective' and structurally has two cops and a crime, it defies any categorization of a genre show," says Michael Lombardo, the network's programming president. "It is a rich, tightly constructed character piece, and that's what attracted us to it."

It was only once the series got the go-ahead that Fukunaga realized the difficulty of the task ahead. "That's when reality hit: Eight hours of television, 500 pages of script and 300-plus locations was going to be a challenge," he recalls wearily from the editing room for "True Detective," where he continues to tinker with all but one episode of the show.

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However it is received critically, "True Detective" will almost certainly spark numerous heated discussions about its authorship, given the unusual division of labor between Fukunaga and Pizzolatto.

The question of who's in charge is tricky in any collaborative medium but is especially so in television, where episodes are churned out by a staff of up to a dozen writers and a rotating cast of directors. Having just two men steer all eight hours of "True Detective" presented a number of challenges, both logistical and creative.

"It's not easy, I'll tell you that. It's certainly easier when there's just one person in charge," acknowledges Fukunaga, who is equally forthcoming about the toll the workload has taken. "I cannot wait to be done. It's been a long, very difficult shoot."

Says Pizzolatto, "I'm executive producer, creator and writer, so at the end of the day I sort of have final arbitration, but what we did was collaborate. I don't think he would have been attracted to the material if his vision was very different than mine."

It helped that Pizzolatto was by all accounts not lacking in self-assurance.

"Talk about a guy who has a very healthy ego," says McConaughey, prompting a knowing laugh from Harrelson. "He is straight up, there's no qualms. If he thinks he's right, he lets you know that he thinks he's right and that it should be written as the Constitution worldwide."

In what may be the true test of authorship, Pizzolatto says he is to blame should "True Detective" prove a failure.

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But even — perhaps especially — if the series is a smashing success, he will not have it easy: The anthology format means that Pizzolatto will be "essentially inventing a new show" at the beginning of each season. (It also makes it more difficult for him to hire a writing staff because "there's nothing for them to latch onto.")

In theory, the format will help HBO attract big-name movie stars who might otherwise be wary of a long-term series commitment. But that tactical advantage does not necessarily outweigh the other challenges presented by an anthology series, says Lombardo.

"One of the great things about series is that, when they work, you're not reinventing the wheel every year. You know the audience is going to come back because they've connected emotionally to the characters. But this is literally like a new series every year. You spent all of this time crafting this unbelievable show, and then you start over from scratch. That's hard stuff."

There's also a certain irony to "True Detective's" once-and-done setup, given that McConaughey and Harrelson would apparently love nothing more than to work together again (and again and again).

"Woody's as pure a guy as I know," gushes McConaughey. "When I say he's one of the last original wild men, I don't mean crazy, I mean naturally wild. And I mean that as a huge compliment. Every time I'm around him I come away feeling younger."

Harrelson is equally complimentary, calling his friend "a genius," and predicting that "we'll probably do about 22 projects together."

"Surfer, Dude 2," anyone?

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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