NEW YORK — A number of things set “True Detective” apart.
For starters, this new HBO drama series (which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EST) stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, a pair of actors known not for TV but for features (Harrelson’s “Cheers” run ended 21 years ago). And they tackle, in effect, not one but two roles apiece: Former Louisiana State Police detectives interrogated in 2012 about a homicide case we see them working, in flashback, in 1995.
The series was written in its entirety by its creator, Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist whose only prior TV credit was a brief turn on AMC’s “The Killing.”
One other thing distinguishes “True Detective.” Not only does the writing draw upon a singular vision, but so does its fulfillment: The entire eight-episode season was stewarded by just one director.
Such a solo act is virtually unprecedented for a TV drama series. But it made sense for “True Detective,” says Cary Joji Fukunaga, who landed the job.
“When you have one person guiding the vision all the way through, and gaining the trust of the actors, the chain isn’t broken from one episode to another,” he says. “It all just flows.”
While fans of series like “Breaking Bad,” ”The Sopranos,” ”Downton Abbey” and “Game of Thrones” might argue that rotating directors don’t disrupt the flow, there’s a certain logic to one person conceiving, and conveying, the Big Picture.
On the other hand, there are excellent reasons for sharing the wealth.
“It’s an incredible amount of work for just one team,” says Fukunaga, who toiled in concert with his cinematographer, first assistant director and other key associates. “Those guys were right there with me the whole way through, so, as impossible as it felt sometimes, at least I wasn’t alone.”
Fukunaga, 36, made the 2011 film “Jane Eyre,” and wrote as well as directed “Sin Nombre,” which won the 2009 directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Not bad for someone who calls filmmaking his “backup plan” and whose dream, instead, was to be a pro snowboarder.
“But filming tests a lot of the same skills,” he reasons. “There’s a fear factor. You have to scare yourself every day. Then, once you’re flying off a cliff, it’s over: You’ve just got to land.”
He faced the cliff’s edge of “True Detective” back in August 2012 as he began gearing up for what would be 101 breakneck days of shooting.
He hasn’t landed yet.
“We’ve been in postproduction since the beginning of July, and I still have four more weeks before I’m done,” he reports. “I’ve been running on fumes for over a year.”
Even so, he looks jazzed during an interview this week at a Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village, on a lunchtime break from a nearby dubbing session.
At least, the recording studio is out of the elements. By contrast, much of the series was shot in remote forests, fields and flood plains of Southern Louisiana.
“You were constantly trying to find locations that were desolate but still had access to a road, because you had all this equipment to roll in and roll out,” he says.
The tale stems from a ritualistic murder of a woman found nude, mutilated and crowned with deer antlers in the middle of nowhere in 1995. This ghoulish crime, the handiwork of a serial killer, is eventually solved by Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson).
Or was it? Pressed by investigators in 2012, the two former partners are forced to relive the case, as well as their stormy relationship, amid growing doubt that the right man was charged.
“But the murder mystery is the least part of the story,” says Fukunaga. “To me, what really mattered was these two guys and their journey. The murder case is a foil, a genre-based hook, to get to know them.”
The real drama, he says, issues from the conflict both these men have “reconciling who they should be with who they are really are. Some men explore it, while some men prefer to repress it.”
The latter condition applies to Hart, a gregarious chap who jabbers how family will keep a guy grounded while we see, in flashback, this husband and father in a rage beating up someone he finds his mistress “cheating” with.
“Hart represents those men who don’t want to ask themselves certain questions, fearing what those questions will reveal,” says Fukunaga, “while Cohle can find existence bearable only by defining it.”
And defining it in the darkest terms. Cohle dismisses human life as “a jury-rig of presumption and dumb will” to Hart, who only wishes Cohle would spare him the bleak talk.
By 2012, Hart is working in private security. He has lost some hair and added some pounds, along with new layers of denial.
Cohle, who in 1995 still fought to keep his demons in check, is now a scraggly boozehound who boasts of staying plastered between shifts tending bar. During his interrogation, he chases Lone Star beer with hooch from his pocket flask.
In their respective dual roles, McConaughey and Harrelson are galvanizing.
“But they have very different approaches to acting,” says Fukunaga, explaining that McConaughey takes a cerebral, analytical approach – “he’s Method. And Woody is completely sensory and moment-to-moment.”
On “True Detective,” they mesh as smoothly as their characters clash.
“This is a multilayered police procedural whose truest investigation is into the nature of its two protagonists,” says Nic Pizzolatto from his home in Ojai, Calif. “Its best moments come from those men just speaking straight into the camera, or riding in a car together, or when one of them comes to eat dinner at the other’s house.”
Such illuminating interludes distinguish “True Detective,” which, if it wins a second season, will focus on new characters in a different setting but stick to its original format where, as in Season 1, “characters are delivering their versions of the truth juxtaposed with the actual happenings,” says Pizzolatto, “revealing the discrepancies between the two: The image won’t lie, but the person narrating it might lie.”
Meanwhile, Fukunaga says he would stay on as a producer of the series, but doesn’t plan to re-up as its full-time director.
“I’ll try anything once,” he declares, days from bringing Season 1 in for a landing. “But now I’ve tried it.”
EDITOR’S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier .