HBO's films and series may be one of the last refuges for actors.
There, someone like Michael Douglas can play a risky role and win an Emmy. Or Louis CK and Lena Dunham can flex other creative muscles and craft inventive television.
Add the opportunities for producing and you understand why Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson decided to do an eight-episode series.
In "True Detective," both get to try out different looks and vocal patterns. McConaughey, in fact, is so unlike his screen persona you can understand why he wanted this rather than another film role.
Here, he and Harrelson play Louisiana detectives assigned a bizarre killing. The case looks like it involved some kind of cult but there are too many tentacles to really pin it on one group.
Flashing forward, detectives assigned a similar case go back to the partners and ask plenty of questions.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the miniseries switches between 1995, 2002 and 2012. It delves into the two detectives' personal lives and tries to paint a complex picture of the case and its investigators.
It's slow to start (and dark visually and thematically) and slow to unfold. But then? Then, it's a matter of piecing together the puzzle writer Nic Pizzolatto has laid out.
Immediately, you'll be struck by Harrelson's guttural voice. It's pitched in a way that suggests he's not being entirely honest with anyone.
McConaughey lets the words drip out of his mouth like syrup.
Add in their hair choices (you'll see what we mean) and you get why they'd want to do something like this.
At times, "True Detective" just seems like an overlong episode of a standard television series. But the flashbacks and flash forwards give it heft and let Fukunaga push the actors.
Immediately, films like "Seven" come to mind. There's a little bit of "The Following" here, too, but the series' format quickly gives it its own identity.
Harrelson is good (Michelle Monaghan is, too, as his wife); but McConaughey shows why he's such a hot film commodity. He's not just a guy who could sell the slacker to a mass audience. He's an incredibly gifted actor who can get under the skin of just about anyone and come away with nuance Pizzolatto included in his script.
While it's likely these two won't be around for a second season, the "True Detective" format has merit. It's just ripe for George Clooney and Brad Pitt to make a similarly daring TV move.
"True Detective" premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.