TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli says two new series this week are worth special mention and couldn't be more different. One, "The Spoils Of "Babylon" is a miniseries soap opera spoof on IFC. The other, "True Detective," is a new drama from HBO which David says starts out as the best HBO drama since "The Wire."
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "True Detective," which begins Sunday on HBO, is a combination series and miniseries, kind of like "American Horror Story" on FX. Each season is designed to tell a different, self-contained story, followed the next year by a new tale with new characters and sometimes even new actors. This first season of "True Detective" is an eight-hour murder mystery starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, neither of whom is expected to return next season.
But catch them while you can, because this first salvo of "True Detective" is riveting. My, what a narrative - and what performances. Just after saying goodbye to "Treme," HBO presents another complicated drama series set in Louisiana. Novelist Nic Pizzolatto has written all eight episodes, and Cary Fukunaga has directed them all, so there's a strong unity of vision. 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.
Woody Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a respected detective who was born and raised in Louisiana. Matthew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a former undercover cop from Texas with a tragic past and an even more tragic world view. Within weeks of being assigned to each other as partners, Hart and Cohle catch a gruesome, ritualistic murder: a young woman found dead in the woods, tied to a tree, posed unnaturally, draped with a crown made of antlers.
"True Detective" could have focused on that case exclusively, but it has other mysteries to solve: namely, the mysteries of Hart and Cohle, both of whom have secrets. And those secrets linger.
In a structural choice that makes this series even more fascinating, it takes place in different timelines: One is 1995, when the murder they're investigating occurs, and the other is 2012, when the two men are interrogated separately by another set of detectives investigating a disturbingly similar murder.
This typical scene shows how those two timelines intertwine: It begins in 1995, as Hart and Cohle examine the initial crime scene, with Hart asking his new partner to assess the evidence. Cohle takes notes and makes drawings in a giant ledger as they talk. Then the scene shifts to 2012, when first Hart, then Cohle, give separate accounts of their first impressions of the case.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")
WOODY HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) OK, tell me what you see.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) Ligature marks on her wrist, ankles and knees. Multiple shallow stab wounds to the abdomen. Hemorrhaging around throat. Levity at the shoulders, thighs and torso. She'd been on her back a while before he moved her.
HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) That's why they call him The Tax Man. Yeah. And the rest of us had these little notepads or something, he had his big ledger. Looked funny walking door-to-door with it like the tax man - which ain't bad as far as nicknames go.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) Yeah. Of course, I've always taken a lot of notes. I mean you never know what the thing is going to be, do you? A little detail somewhere way down the line makes you say (sighs) breaks the case.
BIANCULLI: "True Detective" is very smartly written and structured, and artfully photographed. But it's the performances that dazzle me the most here. Harrelson pulls off a nifty juggling act, being funny one moment and ferocious the next. And McConaughey, who's in the midst of a mid-career resurgence, is flat-out superb as a detective so tightly wound he doesn't sleep, he hallucinates while awake and he's prone to speaking either in long pessimistic monologues or cryptic monosyllables.
When Hart asks Cohle the simplest of questions: Your mom still alive? Cohle answers with one word: Maybe. And it's the way the two actors respond to one another that makes True Detective TV's latest must-see drama.
"The Spoils Of Babylon" - on the other hand - isn't a drama, and isn't even must-see - but it's fun. It starts Thursday on IFC, and is a multi-part production from Will Ferrell's comedy website "Funny or Die," with a very meta concept.
It pretends to be a lost period miniseries from a previous era - the era of such overblown romances covering decades as "The Thorn Birds." It stars Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins, Jessica Alba and others, with a theme song sung by Steve Lawrence.
It's acted, staged, written and directed like an intentionally bad Ed Wood movie. And for this pretend lost masterpiece unveiling, each episode is introduced by its alleged auteur, played by Will Ferrell in all-out Orson Welles-gone-to-seed mode. The costumes and tacky direction made me laugh - and so did Ferrell as writer-director-producer Eric Jonrosh, whose intros are filmed at an old-school Hollywood restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")
WILL FERRELL: (As Eric Jonrosh) The original production of "Spoils Of Babylon" had a running time of 22 hours and was considered not quite done with it, and was considered too long for network television. Tonight's abbreviated version pales in comparison, and yet, in my humble opinion, is far superior to anything on television today. Mm.
(As Eric Jonrosh) The cast is perhaps the finest assembled for the time, as the young romantic lead Dirk Snowfield coming off a weeklong engagement on the hit television show "Telepathy Man." Sir Richard Driftwood, celebrated British stage actor in his first film performance, playing an American - no less - with great skill. And my former life, the beautiful Lauria(ph) Sankick(ph), left us much too soon who left us much too soon and now lives in Arizona with a man who owns a chain of sporting goods stores.
BIANCULLI: "The Spoils of Babylon" for the next few weeks on IFC, has good fun masquerading as high TV art. But "True Detective" for the next two months on HBO, is the real deal.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEAR SPOT")
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: (Singing) I have to run so far to find a clear spot. Ha. Sun's all hottin'...