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True Detective, considered

March 9, 2014

HBO's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga

We live in a new Golden Age of Television — if not the Golden Age. Yes, the airwaves (if such a term is still appropriate in this streaming world) are contaminated with a vast array of wretched, mind-numbing crap, firehosed at us from a billion channels. But scripted television, mainly on cable, has undergone a renaissance in the last decade, since The Sopranos ushered in a new wave of hourlong excellence — you can’t have wheat without the chaff. The recently wrapped Breaking Bad was one of the finest shows we’ve ever seen, and within the current primetime universe is a stellar selection of shows: the Boardwalk Empires, Sons of Anarchys, Americans and Games of Thrones of the world. They’re well-funded, well-shot, oftentimes literate, and at times they put their snooty cousin, cinema, to shame.

Most recently, HBO has done a great service to devotees of the boob tube, reinvigorating a once potent, long dormant format: the mini-series. Short-term seasons, the new quantity in high-quality TV, are tailor-made for the old-timey framework that gave us events as finely crafted as, say, Lonesome Dove. Enter True Detective, the triumphant, senses-shattering return of the mini.Starring newly-minted Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey and noted hashish aficionado Woody Harrelson, Detective follows two investigators, Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Marty Hart, as they investigate a ritualistic murder deep in the bayou country of Louisiana. Events unfold in multiple time periods: 1995, when the murder occurred, and 2012, as Cohle and Hart, both out of the force, are interviewed by a new generation of detectives about the case, which had apparently been solved at the earlier date. What follows is a double unspooling of the two-fold mystery, both the original murder and a similar killing at a later date, and all the things that got us from points A to B. Along the way we peel away the layers of our two leads, who thoroughly can’t stand one another: Cohle, the cold, distant, folio-wielding philosophizer, prone to nihilism; Hart, the nuclear family man who too often thinks with his crotch, more dogged and plodding than his somewhat brilliant partner. Their mutual disdain tinged with respect is delicious, one of the best hooks of the first few episodes.

The one things that keeps these guys together? They want to solve things. It’s what they do. Boiled down to their essence, as we see them towards the end of the eight episode run, that’s what they are: true detectives.

Detective isn’t the first show to try the season anthology format, with each season a new, finite story, as American Horror Story preceded it in that regard. But it has wattage, enough to shine a cultural spotlight on it. McConaughey and Harrelson are both genuine movie stars, the former having finally moved beyond his crummy movie past (Ready to Launch? Co-Starring Terry Goddamn Bradshaw? REALLY?) and his naked-bongo-playing douchebag persona, the latter returning to the medium that gave him his start. (Woody the bartender is back! Now he’s a philandering homicide detective with a drawl!) They’re the kind of people who once upon a time wouldn’t be caught dead appearing on TV, at least not in their prime. Yes, Charlton Heston was one of The Colbys and even guested on Friends for crissakes, and he was one of the biggest stars of the last century. (When your resume includes Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and El Cid, you are a STAR, capital letters.) But he was past his prime when he did his stint on television. You can’t say that about the Detective leads. Their careers are going strong, McConaughey’s stronger than ever now that he can perch an Oscar statuette atop his toilet cistern. Their presence indicates something, not necessarily a sea change, but a shifting of the winds.

A short one-off season also makes it easier to have a unified creative vision behind the camera, and though this is more subtle, it’s just as key to the show’s success. The eight episodes of this first season have been written by the same person –Nic Pizzolatto — and directed by the same person — Cary Joji Fukunaga. This makes it all unfold, not like a season of your normal show, but like a long Russian novel, smoothly, with none of the narrative jumps and starts that you get when multiple cooks are slinging hash in the kitchen. This has shown up most with Fukunaga’s direction, notably the lengthy unbroken shot that closed the fourth episode (it might very well had been the perihelion of the whole damn thing). The eight-hour tableau has given him time to let his direction breathe, with long, contemplative shots of the Louisiana countryside, the contrast of decaying habitation and the southern marshes, the latter always lurking to reclaim its rightful place — a contrast quite apropos of a plot that hinges on a decades-long cabal of old-country yokels abducting, molesting and murdering young children. (And such drawn out vistas are comic book like in the way they allow the beholder to sit back and let their eyes take in what’s in front of them, unlike pure written prose. So if you’re looking for a tenuous hook into why this post is on what’s ostensibly a comic book blog, there you go.)

True (no pun), the dialogue at times verges into the shallowly intellectual, the sort of musings that you’d expect to come out of a nineteen year old stuffed to the gills from their first collegiate philosophy course — Cohle’s monologues about the futility of life might make some viewers roll their eyes. But it’s all presented with such aplomb. How can you get too mad at the dialogue when it comes from a guy dragging on cigarettes (one of the great props, along with phones, in the motion picture arsenal) and making little men out of mutilated Lone Star Beer cans (something fun to watch and ripe for parody)? Or when it’s undergirded by eerie mood music the likes of which we haven’t heard since Twin Peaks (a show you sometimes see Detective compared to) went off the air? How can you get mad at a show that, when it needs to show a seedy, methed-up biker gang, gives you something that feels like it might be the real thing, not the PG-13 anti-heroes from the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy?

I wouldn’t say that True Detective is the best show I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t say that it’s the best show in recent years, or even that it’s the best currently airing. But it represents something greater than itself: a potential new day for a medium. Beyond all the talk of Yellow Kings, spaghetti monsters with green ears and the cruel nature of time and existence, it’s a gauntlet thrown down, a steady entrée from Hollywood’s A-list into television, in a format — limited, finite stints on series — compatible with their movie-making careers. Pizzolatto has thrown some cold water on hopes that the one-director approach will be replicated in future seasons, but nevertheless, there’s hope that others might recognize the success of the singular vision here and try to match it. It would be worth it.

The eighth and final episode of this first season airs tonight. If you’ve been watching the show, you likely understand why this post was written. If you haven’t, here’s hoping you’ll catch it on reruns or binge view it some rainy day. Maybe while swilling Lone Star Beer and chain smoking.

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