Traditionally, January is a time for escapist television. With the long nights and the dour days, the function of the shiny big screen on the wall is to take you away from it all, ideally to sun-kissed beaches (Death in Paradise) or just somewhere fun.
HBO’s True Detective (Sky Atlantic) is an escape of sorts, but if it was a holiday you were looking for then this is like one of those minibreaks where you turn up and the hotel’s not finished, the neighbours are psychos and then you break your leg in six places on the way to the airport. Welcome to six hours in Night Country’s Alaska.
That should stand as a warning but not a reproof. Night Country is the crime anthology’s fourth instalment and, much like its brilliant first series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana homicide detectives, is a reminder of what television drama can achieve, when it tries.
This series is set in Ennis, Alaska, a town so far north that it experiences polar night: for a period each winter, there is no light. We begin with the disappearance of the eight men who operate the Tsalal Arctic Research Station. The detectives on the case are Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), a pair with a past who, true to all of the best cop-buddy pairings, loathe each other.
Night Country, directed and written by the Mexican filmmaker Issa López, is a deliberate counterpoint to the first three True Detective instalments. These, with varying degrees of success (let’s not talk about the second series with Colin Farrell), were broodingly masculine and set in hot, sweaty climes. People – and people in True Detective meant men – were brain-fried; the series showed them losing their minds as they cooked.
But this time, the detectives are both women, the prism is feminine and it is the darkness and the cold that are corroding the collective. Lopez, with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Tár, The Terror), creates an environment that is chilling in every sense. It looks both spectacular and terrifying. All of the performances suggest that the actors spent extended periods in the cold (it was filmed in Iceland), because they fret and shiver throughout. Foster, in particular, is astonishing, cast surely in part because of her most famous role as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Here there is a sense that the seeds of anger at male depravity deep within Danvers were first sown in cases such as that of Buffalo Bill.
Due regard is paid to the Alaskan Native cultures, too, all adding to that classic True Detective feeling of being hurled headlong into an environment that you don’t understand and that doesn’t want you there either. It is The Wire’s Baltimore or True Blood’s Louisiana. By episode six, a bravura, nerve-shredding conclusion that stands shoulder-square with some of the best hours of TV of recent years, the Night Country will be somewhere you’ll never want to go back to – but somewhere you’ll never forget.
True Detective: Night Country is on Sky Atlantic and NOW