TV is so overpopulated with cop dramas driven by mismatched partners that you might think it impossible to imagine a rookie series earning a spot on your must-see list.

But "True Detective" is utterly compelling, thanks in no small part to Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, actors who have shucked off their good ol' boy images and focused on doing the best work of their careers. McConaughey is particularly impressive, tapping into the psyche of a brilliant but haunted investigator without relying on histrionics. He may or may not get an Oscar nomination next week for his turn in "Dallas Buyers Club," but he'll almost certainly be on the short list for an Emmy.

"Detective" also benefits from director Cary Joji Fukunaga's genius for framing. Bouncing back and forth between 1995 and 2012, the dense mystery unspools as the two detectives recount a case they may have screwed up. It could easily get messy. Instead, it's seamless and engaging.

The story ends after eight hours, which may be a bummer for viewers who get addicted to the characters. But the short-form narrative — a welcome trend in American television — fosters storytelling with a minimum of fat. Harrelson and McConaughey won't be back if there's a second season, but if the writing stays crisp and producers can attract future dream teams, there's every reason to believe "Detective" will be a force for years to come.

Neal Justin