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Late to the Party: True Detective Season One

October 24th, 2014
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It took me a while to find the time to watch True Detective — I’d been interested in the show ever since I first read about it but was so busy last Winter/Spring that it took me a few months to get to it — but holy cow was it worth the wait.  I was absolutely dazzled by this dense, dark noir, brought to life with gorgeous cinematography, brilliant actors, and a rich, complex script.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the first season of True Detective follows the difficult partnership of Louisiana detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrison) and “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).  The show’s story unfolds simultaneously in two timelines.  In 1995, we see Hart and Cohle investigate the murder of Dora Kelly Lange, who is found displayed in a ritualistic fashion, bound and posed with a “crown” of antlers on her head.  In 2012, long after their partnership dissolved in acrimony, Hart and Cohle are questioned, separately, about the events of their investigation.

I was blown away right from minute one by this incredible production.  The story is incredibly complex, as we follow Hart & Coehle’s labyrinthine murder investigation while also trying to puzzle out many other questions about what happened to these characters and the others in their orbit in the years between 1995 and 2012.  While the central murder mystery is a compelling hook for the series, what really engages the viewer are the characters. I am hard-pressed to recall such an in-depth character study that I have ever before seen on TV.  Over the course of these eight episodes, we dig deeply into these two incredibly complicated, rich characters of Hart and Coehle.

The casting of friends Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaighey was inspired.  I’m sure it helped the show get made that these two big stars were attached.  But the show works because both men turn in incredible performances, among the very best of their two careers.

It’s amazing how Woody Harrelson once used to be so indelibly defined as the goofily simple, naive Woody Boyd from Cheers.  It’s impressive that he has managed to avoid being type-cast by that iconic role.  Martin Hart is about as far from Woody Boyd as you can get.  Mr. Harrelson is incredible in bringing this arrogant, dick-swinging tough-guy to life.  Marty Hart is a train wreck of a man, and he does some pretty despicable things, but Mr. Harrelson never loses sight of the character’s humanity, and his force of personality is magnetic.

Speaking of magnetic, there is Matthew McConaughey’s home-run of a performance as the withdrawn, mysterious Rusty Cohle.  Rust is just as damaged an individual as Marty is, perhaps even more so.  Whereas the audience thinks they understand Marty when the show begins, and then are surprised (at least I was) as they learn more about him as the show progresses, Rust is a total enigma when the show begins.  He seems to be a smart, incisive investigator, but his conversations in the car with Marty are amusingly far-out, and his retreat into drunkenness when invited over to Marty’s home for dinner tells us just how broken he must be inside.  Over the course of the show’s eight hours, Mr. McConaughey takes us inside Rust’s character.  To call Mr. McConaughey’s performance intense would be an understatement.  He grabs the viewers by the shirt and dares them to look away.  I truly don’t think Mr. McConaughey has ever been better.

This first season, at eight episodes long, was the perfect length.  There’s not an ounce of fat on this story.  I love that more and more American TV shows, particularly cable shows, are starting to follow the British model of short seasons.  This allows the creators to craft a story that has a definitive beginning, middle, and end, which results in a far richer experience, I find, then having to stretch a story or characters for twenty-four-or-so episodes each year.  A connected benefit, and another key to True Detective’s phenomenal success, is that at that length it was possible for the same person to write every episode (Nic Pizzolatto) and to direct every episode (Cary Joji Fukunaga).  I adore this about the show.  This creative consistency gives the whole show, all eight episodes, a remarkably cohesive feel, like we’re seeing a true novel-for-television unfold before our eyes.

Both Mr. Pizzolatto and Mr. Fukunaga are now names I will follow to whatever they do next (hopefully including a great second season of this show next year).  Mr. Pizzolatto’s scripts for these eight episodes are extraordinary.  There are so many layers of character and incident in each episode that I feel like I’d need to re-watch this series several times to get everything.  That is the series’ greatest strength.  This is a show that I felt required every iota of my attention.  I love television like that.  True Detective thinks very highly of its audience.  It doesn’t spell everything out for the viewer, it trusts that the audience will be able to keep up and put all the pieces together.  What a rare thing that is!

Mr. Fukunaga’s direction is extraordinary.  This show is gorgeous.  The imagery is epic, the Louisiana landscapes staggeringly gorgeous.  There are so many incredibly memorable images and locations in every episode.  It’s an amazing achievement.  And let’s talk for a minute about that insane “eight minutes of hell” sequence in episode 4, in which Rust accompanies a biker gang — who he is infiltrating in an attempt to acquire some key information — on a job that goes terribly wrong.  This huge action set piece is accomplished in a SINGLE TAKE, with the camera never cutting as we move with Rust in and out of rooms and buildings, through an escalating explosion of violence.  (Click here for more info on this sequence in a piece written by Mr. Fukunaga.)  For this sequence alone Mr. Fukunaga and his collaborators should be praised.  It is extraordinary.

The show’s music is also an incredibly important aspect of the show’s success.  The music, overseen by T Bone Burnett, is extraordinarily unique and effective.

If the show has any weakness, it’s that each episode is so complex and fast-paced that I sometimes had trouble following the details of Hart & Coehle’s investigation.  (I’m still not quite clear, for example, how they wound up at the house at the end of episode one where they found the twig pyramid/lattice-work in the back.  I suspect a repeat viewing will clarify this, but on my initial watching I was a bit lost.)  I’m also not sure that the series ever quite resolved the central mystery of Dora Lange’s murder.  Just why WAS she displayed so prominently for all the world to see?  Wouldn’t the group of men involved in these rituals have wanted to have kept everything a secret?  Other questions: Why was Erroll Childress, the scarred mass-murderer, called the Yellow King?  What was Carcosa?

The show is so compelling and entertaining that these questions didn’t trouble me as I was watching it.  When I watched the finale, I was hugely satisfied at the end, because I felt that the characters’ emotional story-lines had come to a wonderful end.  But in the days that followed, I started to ask those questions listed above and others concerning the show’s murder mystery plot.  It’s clear that the murder mystery was less important to Mr. Pizzolatto and his collaborators than the character arcs.  I respect that, and their focus on character is central to the show’s great success.  But I do wish I had a few more solid answers with regards to the murder mystery.

True Detective is a thrilling story, a dark and compelling yarn.  The show feels like a unique TV creation to me.  I am excited that the show will be returning with a second season (with different characters and a different central mystery), though I’m not sure how they can top this initial offering.  A magnificent achievement.

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