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True Detective: Night Country, episode 1 review: welcome to your next TV drama obsession

Consider the bar for 2024 raised: Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers in True Detective: Night Country
Consider the bar for 2024 raised: Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers in True Detective: Night Country - HBO

Reindeer throwing themselves off cliffs, one-eyed polar bears, the Ferris Bueller Twist and Shout scene stuck on a loop at an abandoned Arctic research station where there’s a severed tongue lolling about on the floor… welcome to the weird, wild world of True Detective: Night Country (Sky Atlantic).

The fourth instalment of HBO’s anthology series set out its stall in a creepy, fog-frosted hour that was first and foremost a rejoinder to the first three series. Where those were male, sweaty fever dreams, this was a female, frostbitten brain freeze. Where they were at first excellent, and then really quite bad as the franchise ran out of steam, this was a triumph of an opener, and a shot in the arm for TV as a whole – consider the bar for 2024 raised.

Film-maker Issa López, on this evidence, was an inspired choice to jump-start the franchise. She is both aesthete and auteur, as interested in atmosphere as she is in plot. While True Detective does require a detective or two as part of its remit, and a case to solve, last night’s introductory hour was memorable most for its savage imagery. Still, the scene-setting necessary in a first chapter needs a dramatis personae and a teasing mystery.

So we got Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster), our grizzled lead detective, and Eva Navarro (Kari Reis), her younger, even-more-grizzled sidekick, thrown together to investigate the sudden disappearance of a group of scientists at a remote Alaskan research centre. Naturally Danvers and Navarro hate each other’s guts – in fact, almost everyone in Ennis (“Welcome to the end of the world!” leers the town sign) seems to hate Danvers.

Newcomer (and former boxer) Kali Reis is brilliant
Newcomer (and former boxer) Kali Reis is brilliant - HBO

In Navarro’s case the bad blood has to do with an investigation into the brutal murder of a local Alaskan Native girl that she can’t let go (Navarro is part Alaskan Native herself; indeed, she’s a dynamo, with former boxer Reis superb throughout in the role). The girl’s murder looks to be connected to her activism against the big, bad mine that gives Ennis all of its jobs while also polluting its water supply. So the pieces for the kind of deep-seated resentments that lead people to do very bad things are all in play.

That part of episode one was done in a manner that would make Night Country merely another very competent, albeit very cold and particularly brutal, crime series. What marks it out is the sense that this is as much a ghost story as a detective drama.

When you bring in reindeer and polar bears and spirit animals and mysticism, TV drama can easily look like it’s taking itself too seriously. Yet with its bravura title sequence, devastating sound, startling wide shots, electric performances across the board and some proper horror, Night Country is both immersive and unsettling. You won’t want to go back there; you won’t be able not to.

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