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Jokes are quicksilver. They don’t always remain jokes. Sometimes, they evolve into something else entirely.

It wasn’t so long ago that Matthew McConaughey was a joke. Too many crummy rom-coms (non-comedies, every one of them) turned him into most people’s idea of a self-worshipping symbol of good old boy narcissism. He seemed to be a fellow who could always be counted on to take his shirt off for no good reason whatsoever besides showing off.

“TMZ” and its community of bottom-feeding snark owned him.

When he directly confronted the joke in Steven Soderbergh’s wicked and cunning male stripper fantasy “Magic Mike,” he was of course suddenly taken seriously.

That’s often the way it is with jokes. John Wayne had been a sophisticated Hollywood joke for so long that when he finally decided to join in on the fun and make sport of himself as Rooster Cogburn in the original “True Grit,” they gave him an Oscar for it. (Lee Marvin’s Oscar was given to him for burlesquing himself in “Cat Ballou.”)

“Magic Mike” won plaudits for McConaughey. Awards recognition awaited the jokes’ death knell.

He’s unlikely to win a Golden Globe this evening for his performance in “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.” In this one case, it’s literally true that nomination is honor enough. (That will certainly be the case if he’s one of the five nominated for an Oscar on Jan. 17 when Oscar nominees are announced.)

He was virtually assured of nominations by the bushel the minute word got out that he’d lost 47 pounds to play a man dying of AIDS in “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Ever since De Niro packed on excess avoirdupois for “Raging Bull,” poundage, on and off, has been one medium for informing the world you’re taking an acting role seriously. That’s especially true if, like McConaughey the world thinks of you as a miscellaneous Hollywood ab six-pack waiting to happen in front of a camera lens.

Should anyone want a much more reliable fix on Matthew McConaughey’s seriousness in the current world than the notoriously manipulable and unreliable Golden Globes – Never forget former prize winner Pia Zadora – you need to crank up the DVR for this evening’s premiere of HBO’s “True Detective” at 9 p.m.

A greyhound-lean McConaughey – only slightly post-skeletal after “Dallas Buyer’s Club” – plays a wondrously strange and brilliantly written role as a dark prince of Crescent City law enforcement, a vehemently eccentric, Quaalude-gobbling genius cop given to informing his cheerful family man partner (Woody Harrelson) that the world is a “giant gutter in outer space.” And “in philosophical terms, I’m a pessimist. It means I’m bad at parties.”

He firmly believes, for instance, that “human consciousness was a mistake in evolution” and longs for lights out for the whole human species or, as he puts it, “one last midnight opting out of a raw deal.”

His cop colleagues in New Orleans call him The Taxman because he doesn’t take notes on his murder cases in an itty bitty notebook but rather in a large Taxman-like ledger.

His partner, Harrelson, juts out his jaw in an immense underbite (shades of Billy Bob Thornton in “Slingblade”) whenever the genius cop/pessimist says things like “I can smell the psychosphere.” As the show progresses, Harrelson’s complacent married cop turns into an increasingly raving hypocrite.

Right about this point, you are probably noting that the writing in tonight’s premiere of “True Detective” inhabits a level at least two times richer even than some of the best on premium cable.

You’d be right too. It’s as if Robert Stone had suddenly decided to write HBO series. The writer of the whole eight-episode mini-series is a young 40-something fellow named Nic Pizzalotto whose sole novel is a crime noir thing called “Galveston” and whose big cable TV credit before this was to be on the staff of AMC’s “The Killing.”

The game plan for “True Detective” is, in general, unusual and hugely creative. Each season of the show will be different.; It will be an anthology series but in a decidedly odd way with each whole season having the same cast, writer, director and show-runner for their duration.

All eight episodes of this season’s “True Detective” were written by Pizzalotto. All the first batch of “True Detectives” was directed by Cary Fukunaga whose version of “Jane Eyre” with Mia Wasikowska was, if you ask me, the best ever.

As brooding cop procedurals go, “True Detective” this time around, is exceptional.

At least for the first three episodes it is. I’ve seen the first four and, unfortunately, there’s a falling off in the fourth where they seem to be trying much too hard to give some of us a new version of “The Wire.”

Where it goes after that fourth episode, I haven’t the foggiest. I’m still interested though. Pizalotto’s writing for McConaughey’s character is so bizarre and interesting that I want to see where the whole thing ends up in episode eight’s climax.

Meanwhile, back at this evening’s Golden Globes, anyone inclined to knee-jerk dismissal might need to think twice. No one ever said they were all that consequential, but this award season generally has been so wild and woolly that you never know what can happen when major performers and awards come together.

What’s happened thus far: At the awards dinner of the New York Film Critics’ Circle, Steve McQueen, director of “12 Years a Slave” was reportedly heckled nastily by contrarian conservative film critic Armand White (who denies it). At the National Board of Review Ceremony, Meryl Streep – bless her – gave the Best Actress Prize to supposed rival Emma Thompson for “Saving Mr. Banks” which purports to tell the story of how Walt Disney browbeat P.L. Travers into letting him make a movie of her “Mary Poppins” books.

As long as Streep was in Uncle Walt’s neighborhood, though, she took the trouble to remind one and all in promotion-ville that Uncle Walt had a stout reputation as a sexist, a racist and an anti-Semite (some of which is more than debatable as any reader of Neal Gabler’s definitive biography of Disney knows).

The point about this season’s movie awards is this: Real world issues – very big ones – are involved and Lord knows what will come out of performer’s mouths when they mix with a few drinks.

Absolutely no one except idiots and modern day Bob Hopes will bother with Matthew McConaughey shirtless jokes.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com