PASADENA, Calif. – If the first day of the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour is any indication, TV’s dark days are far from over.
Critics were welcomed to the tour Wednesday evening with a screening of the pilot to “The Leftovers,” HBO’s unsettling portrait of small-town America in crisis. Justin Theroux stars as the town’s overwhelmed police chief, struggling to keep order three years after large segments of the population were abducted and simply disappeared. Amy Brenneman and Liv Tyler also star as women drawn to a mysterious cult of non-speakers who see the attacks as signs of a global rapture.
Created by Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and novelist Tom Perrotta (who was in the writing room on “The Killing”), the series is somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch’s cult series “Twin Peaks,” albeit with a more sinister and explicit tone. Theroux, perhaps best known for his engagement to Jennifer Aniston, has worked with Lynch in the past.
Thursday brings a press session on A&E’s new crime drama “Those Who Kill,” starring Chloe Sevigny as a whip-smart police detective who tracks down serial killers. It is scheduled to premiere in March.
Premiering Sunday on HBO Canada may be the darkest series of them all: “True Detective.” Promoted with the premise, “the world needs bad men,” it takes an unblinking view of crime and law enforcement in America. Set in Louisiana and shot entirely within a one-hour radius of New Orleans, it stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who both met with critics Thursday.
McConaughey and Harrelson play mismatched police detectives locked into a 17-year investigation of ritualistic slayings. The early buzz puts both actors in contention for Emmy Awards for their uncompromising performances. McConaughey is widely expected to receive a nomination for his performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” when Oscar contenders are announced Jan. 16. The two projects show an intense actor transformed beyond the charm-dog romantic comedy roles that once defined him.
“What impressed me was his professionalism,” director Cary Fukunaga said last month at HBO’s office in New York. “He had an entire idea of how he was going to construct this character and was dead set on doing it that way, and it fit what we wanted, so that was great.”
The two Texans are good friends, says Fukunaga, and the energy between the actors added to the charged atmosphere on the set. Harrelson, he says, brings “a completely different kind of interpretation of the takes, but this sort of looseness is what makes him, I think, so good at what he does.”
Besides being another grim and gritty drama, “True Detective” is part of a trend towards shorter, limited run series. The eight-episode anthology would return in future seasons with an entirely new cast, allowing movie stars like McConaughey and Harrelson to return to film projects past their commitments to this project.
“I’ve been on the project for a little over two years now,” says Fukunaga (“Jane Eyre”), 36, who directed all eight episodes of the series. Fukunaga calculates about five-and-a-half months of that were actually spent shooting the series, the rest on pre- and post-production.
“It was a pretty long, arduous, adrenaline-filled run,” he says. “Tone wasn’t built in a day.”
Tone is central to “True Detective,” created and written by New Orleans author Nic Pizzolatto. You can almost feel the dry heat beating down on these two complex detectives as they sweat through this long investigation.
Fukunaga feels “tone is one of the most difficult things to keep consistent in a project. If you think of more auteur directors and their films — you think of a Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers — the reason why their films are their films is because that tone becomes natural.”
Hitting the right intense tone on “True Detective” came after “a lot of conversations about context, subtext, overall themes — and the location has played a big part.”
So does the soundtrack, intensely quiet in parts but also punctuated with a score by T Bone Burnett.
Fukunaga sees more movie stars like McConaughey and Harrelson making short-run series commitments to television.
“I definitely think there’s an acceptance of television as being an equal,” he says.
Writers and directors have also been making the switch from film to TV in record numbers.
“With a subscribership like HBO, you’re going to have millions of people watching these things you’ve been working on,” he says, “And that is the goal, you know? It’s great to make a great film, but if it’s only going to screen on a limited number of theatres and won’t attract the kind of audiences you want to get out to you, it’s very difficult after spending years doing it, and it’s harder and harder these days to get films in the cinema.”
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.