TV Review: True Detective

March 7, 2014 1:00 pm

True Detective is without doubt the hottest series on TV right now, and it will certainly make for some interesting water-cooler conversations for at least a couple more weeks.

The story initially seems formulaic. Two cops -troubled Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey and typical cop Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson- investigate the death of a young woman, Dora Lang, who’s been brutally murdered in what seems to be a ritualistic way. Upon closer inspection, the evidence points to a serial killer. And so the investigation ensues. We’re not treated to the usual crime thriller/drama narrative, but rather to philosophical ponderings on the nature of man, faith, morals and monsters. Nietzsche seems to be ever present, from the tagline “Man is the cruellest of animal” to the flat circle comments, as does Robert W. Chambers, whose importance has been at depth discussed in an article on io9.

true detective season 1

The further the investigation goes, the further it leads them to some occult religious rituals and symbols that foreshadow something bigger and more sinister than a simple serial killer. The series employs flash-forwards and backwards as it jumps from the original time of the murder (1995) to 2002 and then to the present (2012) where detectives Papania and Gilbough question Marty and Rust about their work on the Dora Lang case to try to shed some light on a similar case from the present. The crime itself becomes tangent, and provides the grounds for the show to explore what makes people tick, and delve deeper and deeper into the cruelty of man and the fact that we’re all monsters, in one way or another. Having sense and sensibility under the eerie and occult, True Detective can be best described as intellectual pulp.

Rust is the character that knows himself and accepts the darkness inside him. He’s the most intelligent person on the show, but that often comes at a price. He’s a loner, a pessimist, a tortured soul, the troubled hero that sees the world for what it is and that eats into him. The only way he can escape it is to bury himself deep in police work.

Marty is the opposite, “just a regular guy with a big dick”, a cop that goes to work and then to his family. But he also has own demons. He’s a wife-cheating alcoholic and throughout the six episodes so far he shows glimpses of range. But it’s called True Detective for a reason and McConaughey steals the show.

The two main characters are constructed in a slight antithesis, playing off each other and it works great. Marty’s devotion to religion and Rust’s abhorrence of it works especially well, although the family antithesis (Marty has one but doesn’t know how to keep it, and Rust lost his) sometimes feels like a trope.

If there were some barriers left to be broken in TV, True Detective does just that. Except the philosophical questions it raises, the series also breaks barriers with its decision to only have one scriptwriter (creator Nick Pizzolatto) and one director (Cary Fukunaga). This makes the show very novelistic and different in structure than most other TV series. But there is also rigour to be found there. Alongside cinematographer Adam Arkapow, Pizzolatto and Fukunaga plan everything with minute detail and execute it perfectly, breathing fresh air into TV with their marvellous unbroken tracking shots, of which the escape scene in the projects in episode four is the stand-out.

true detective reviewAnother important part of the series is Rust’s monologues which are the main faucet for the show’s philosophical and moral questions. The tediousness and artificiality of films that rely heavily on monologues is resolved here by having Rust spurt them out during Papaia and Gillbough’s interrogation in the present. While sometimes a bit pretentious, they’re a joy to watch, because they’re often left lingering in air and then borough deep into your brain. This sets Pizzolatto and Fukunaga apart from other writers and directors like Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick who immediately provide you with the answer to their question, as if the viewer is just a dumb drone sitting in front of the screen in his underwear, too filled with cheetos to be able to think for himself.

If the press had access to the first seven episodes, the 8th  is hush-hush and not even president Obama could get his hands on it to see if it’s the climax we’ve all been waiting for. What we do know is that series creator Nick Pizzolatto intends to make it an anthology, in the fashion of FX’s American Horror Story, but undoubtedly of better quality. One can only hope the second season will be as good as this first one.

It is often argued that The Sopranos started a revolution that transformed TV shows forever. Then there was The Wire, and more recently Breaking Bad. And now there’s True Detective, an occult cop drama. There was a rumour a while ago that David Lynch would revisit Twin Peaks, but I’m convinced now there’s no need for that. We’ve got True Detective. And that’s enough.

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