David Zurawik

Hearing Baltimore echoes in HBO's 'True Detective'

Matthew McConaughey (left) and Woody Harrelson in "True Detective."

A couple of hard-edged veteran cops are driving down a desolate Louisiana road after investigating a grisly crime scene in HBO's new Sunday-night drama, "True Detective."

They have been partners for three months but have spoken little about their personal lives.

"Ask you something?" the older detective (Woody Harrelson) says. "You a Christian, yeah?"

"No," his partner (Matthew McConaughey) replies, looking out the passenger-side window at the barren landscape.

After a pause and another question, the older man circles back to religion. "So, if you're not a Christian, what do you believe?"

"I believe people shouldn't talk about this [expletive] at work," his partner says.

When the senior detective takes offense, his laconic partner decides to reveal a little about himself.

"Look, I consider myself a realist, all right? But in philosophical terms, I'm what's called a pessimist."

By the time the younger man starts describing Earth as a "giant gutter in space" and man as a "tragic misstep in evolution," his agitated partner's had enough of this sharing.

"I wouldn't go around spoutin' that stuff if I were you. People around here don't think that way. I don't think that way … I got an idea: Let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on, OK?"

I haven't enjoyed that kind of a comically dark conversation between two TV cops since Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) on HBO's "The Wire." No wait, make that Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) or Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"True Detective," which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, is filled with that kind of interplay between two of the best actors you will ever see working in series television. See them while you can the next eight weeks as two detectives involved in a murder investigation that stretches across 17 years — yes, 17 years. It opens with the corpse of a woman killed in a ritualistic, quasi-religious manner.

HBO describes the series as an anthology that could have different actors, different crimes, different writers and directors in different seasons if it continues. All the premium channel is guaranteeing is the eight episodes scheduled to air Sundays at 9 the next two months. All eight episodes are written and executive-produced by novelist Nic Pizzolatto. In an interview with, he listed TV writer David Milch ("Deadwood") and playwrights Harold Pinter and David Mamet as influences.

But I was thinking mostly about David Simon as I watched the first four episodes. And the more I watched, the more I thought about how deeply Simon's vision, sensibility and style have affected the way crime stories are told at the high end of American and British TV these days.

And that's not the product of some strange, insular, hometown Baltimore thinking either.

"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," David Bianculli said in a preview of the series for NPR's "Fresh Air."

As a TV series, "Homicide" is certainly more a product of executive producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana than it is Simon — something the former Sun reporter himself has always said. And Levinson has been doing two-guys-talking-wise-and-funny forever — and better than just about anyone else.

But NBC's "Homicide" was based on Simon's 1991 nonfiction book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," and after leaving The Sun in 1995, the veteran police reporter signed onto the Baltimore-based TV production as a writer and producer. So there is a strong connection, with Simon both being shaped as a TV writer-producer by the culture of that production and helping shape the series.

This is in no way meant to diminish "True Detective." It is filled with loads of wholly original material. But as I watched, I kept thinking how much these two Louisiana detectives owe to the Baltimore archetypes. I also came to believe that the freedom Pizzolatto, Harrelson and McConaughey have to go deep in exploring the dark side of American life would not have been possible without the groundbreaking work done in Baltimore on "Homicide" and especially "The Wire."

I remember how NBC wanted to move "Homicide" to Los Angeles, and not just to control production costs. The thought was that it would be a more pleasant-looking show with all that sunlight. But Fontana and Levinson understood that the grit of Baltimore was the DNA of that show, and to move it was to lose that essence.

And it now seems to me like almost everyone making a police and/or urban drama wants it to feel as much like "The Wire" as possible.

That desire is perhaps most obviously suggested by the presence of actors from "The Wire" in such series. Remember Baltimore's James Ransone, Ziggy Sobotka from "The Wire," in AMC's dark Detroit drama, "Low Winter Sun," last year?

"True Detective" has two alums from "The Wire": Baltimore's Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon) as a rural minister and Michael Potts (Brother Mouzone) as a Louisiana detective interrogating the McConaughey and Harrelson characters, Detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. He's quizzing them as part of a 2012 investigation into a crime they first encountered in 1995.

By the way, if you are queasy about TV murder, you should know the camera spends a lot a time in the first few minutes of "True Detective" on that original, gruesome crime scene. It's a tableau that speaks straight to the unconscious. I believe the time the camera spends on the image is absolutely warranted artistically, but don't say you weren't warned if you wind up being rattled by it.

Dramatically, it doesn't matter in the end how much the characters of Hart and Cohle might be derivative, because McConaughey and Harrelson are so original in their performances — especially McConaughey, who seems to want to take Cohle as far beyond our expectations of TV cops as one can get.

"I got a bad taste in my mouth out here," Cohle says as the two cops continue down that rural road. "Aluminum, ash, it's like you can smell the psychosphere."

McNulty and Bunk talked about some pretty dark stuff some nights in Baltimore. But never the smell of the psychosphere, to the best of my recollection.