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The Boston Globe

Television

Television Review

McConaughey, Harrelson make ‘True Detective’ arresting

Woody Harrelson (left) and Matthew McConaughey star in the new HBO series “True Detective.”

JIM BRIDGES/HBO

Woody Harrelson (left) and Matthew McConaughey star in the new HBO series “True Detective.”

Most of us, for better and worse, have been forced to work with people who challenge us: our patience, our values, our intellect. Those challenges can spill into our personal lives.

One of the many elements that make the new drama “True Detective,” premiering Sunday night at 9, another winner for HBO is the verisimilitude at the heart of the uneasy partnership between Louisiana State Police detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).

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Everything about the fraught situation is deftly captured by the actors: the awkward silences, the flash flare-ups, the comic moments and inside jokes that happen over time in spite of friction, the solidarity in the face of a common problem.

TRUE DETECTIVE

Cast:
Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson
Network:
HBO
Show date:
Sunday
Show time:
9-10 p.m

In this case, the common problem is a potential serial killer with bizarre, potentially occult leanings, threatening the peace of mind of the people of the region where Hart and Cohle work for the Criminal Investigation Division (CID).

Created and written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto (“Galveston”) and executive produced by, among others, the show’s stars, “True Detective” is a dark, deliberate look at “bad men” pursued by men who are in Cohle’s estimation only slightly less bad.

The action crosscuts between 1995 (when Hart and Cohle originally caught the case), 2002, and 2012, when a new set of law enforcement officials, dealing with a similar killer, brings the now estranged men in, separately, to reexamine the case — and their relationship.

Although his character is given to fidgety business, pessimistic pronouncements about the human need for delusions of self-importance, and educated disdain, there is a stillness to McConaughey’s work here that is compelling. Harrelson is equally captivating as a constricted man who thinks he knows what he believes but only because he willfully denies his own emotional turmoil. Their belief in their mission and respect for each other’s skills bind them together even as they spar. “For a guy who sees no point in existence you sure fret about it a lot,” says Hart to Cohle during one of their many debates.

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Both actors — who could’ve credibly switched parts and been as interesting — create distinct characterizations for each timeline, with McConaughey benefiting from the dramatic physical changes Cohle undergoes.

Michelle Monaghan (“Gone Baby Gone”) does a lot with little on the page as Hart’s frustrated wife, Maggie, and the rest of the cast is filled with solid character actors.

Shot on location, “True Detective” benefits from a backdrop that can switch from lush and green to creepy and decayed in an instant, and music producer T Bone Burnett provides a soundtrack that is unsettling — spare, hollow, percussive — and mirrors the performances.

While the tempo is slow at first, halfway through the eight episodes there is an abrupt shift in pace and atmosphere that ratchets up the tension in a welcome fashion.

The best compliment a pilot episode can receive is that it makes you want to watch the next episode immediately. Even though “True Detective” can feel very heavy at times, and as often as we’ve seen serial killer story lines, Harrelson and McConaughey were compelling enough that I powered through the first four episodes HBO sent for review.

The series was created as an anthology, and if it returns for a second season will have a new cast and story line, which is unfortunate in some ways, because it would be interesting to see McConaughey and Harrelson, real-life buddies and former costars, tackle another case.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.

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