7:18 pm - 02/11/2014

True Detective: The Best Show on TV

Could HBO's latest hit be helping pave the way for a new form of storytelling?

What must David Fincher think when he watches this show?

It’s a thought that first occurred to me in the opening minutes of the series premiere of HBO’s True Detective a month ago, and it has recurred more or less continuously throughout each subsequent episode. The eight-part series, which has just crossed its season midpoint, is Fincherian in the best sense: Zodiac good, Kevin-Spacey-in-the-police-cruiser-in-Se7en good. The resemblance is due in part to the show’s subject matter (the hunt for a serial killer); in part, to its look (crisply cinematic); and, most of all, to its mood: vivid, unsettling, with evil lurking palpably just outside the frame.

So while I have no real idea what David Fincher thinks when he watches True Detective—or whether he’s even watched it at all—I can’t help but imagine he must think something along the lines of: How can it be that I have nothing to do with this show?

Which is a long way of saying that True Detective is the most compelling series currently on television, one that boasts an almost embarrassing array of riches: a mesmerizing performance by current Hollywood It Man Matthew McConaughey; an only marginally less notable turn by co-star Woody Harrelson; an intricate structure and hyper-literate dialogue by writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto; big-screen-worthy direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga; and an anthology format that has the potential to help change the way high-end television is produced.
The show is presented in alternating narratives set 17 years apart. In 1995, two homicide detectives—Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) investigate a series of apparent serial killings in southern Louisiana. Flash forward to 2012, where the two former partners, both now retired from the force, are themselves interrogated by another pair of policemen (Michael Potts, Tory Kittles) regarding their conduct in the long-ago case.

The result is a relatively conventional (though masterfully executed) procedural mystery nested within a broader meta-mystery. It is clear from the start that Cohle and Hart successfully closed their original serial-killer case in 1995. But it is equally clear that the present-day investigators are reopening the case, and subjecting the detectives’ accounts of its closure to skeptical scrutiny—Cohle’s in particular.

And who can blame them? The Cohle of 1995 was an odd enough character, a brilliant misfit prone to rococo outpourings of evangelical nihilism. But the ensuing years have not been kind. Cohle’s ill temper and philosophic inclination are still in evidence, but his purpose has been leeched away. In place of the spare, clean-cut obsessive who would work all night on a case is a grizzled burnout making his way through Lone Star beers with arithmetic efficiency in the interrogation room.

Hart is a more common type: a swinging-dick cop, capable and popular around the station; a family man who’s not quite ready to be just a family man. His metamorphosis from one side to the other of the show’s 17-year chronological canyon may not be as severe—his hairline has receded, and he’s left cop life for a “security firm”—but as becomes clear over the first four episodes, he, too, is now a different man.

The pairing of Cohle and Hart, the misanthropic genius and the “ordinary” observer who set his eccentricities in context, is not a novel one, of course. Holmes and Watson are the classic prototypes—unless one tries to reach all the way back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—and Patrick O’Brian’s Maturin and Aubrey seem even clearer models for Pizzolatto’s detectives. (I’d be astonished if he did not have them in mind when he created the characters.)

But while the pairing isn’t entirely new, it is nonetheless sublime. In interviews, Pizzolatto has declared that he has no interest in serial killers, that the situation that gives rise to True Detective is just that: a situation, an excuse to bounce his leads off one another—the clear-eyed zealot and the self-deluding everyman—under extreme pressure. (Call it a “sit-dram.”) Yes, there are times, particularly in the first couple episodes, when Pizzolatto lays McConaughey’s dialogue on a little thick, with the “paraphilic love maps” and “smell[ing] the psychosphere” and so on. (To whit: this, among many other comparable parodies.) But this is language that takes delight in itself, for itself. If you cannot appreciate Cohle’s describing the illusion of selfhood as “a jury-rig of presumption and dumb will” in episode three, well, this may not be the show for you.

McConaughey continues his run of great recent performances (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street). He has pared himself down physically from his surf-hunky days courting Kate Hudson, but more than that he has pared down his craft, finding virtue in stillness. As he’s thinned out, he’s discovered new depths. Harrelson’s role is in some ways, the more difficult: the straight man, the narrative afterthought. But he, too, underplays neatly, in particular as Hart’s older self. Possibly the show’s most intriguing mystery so far is neither the 1995 killings nor the 2012 re-investigation, but the question of what exactly happened in 2002—an era we have not seen, and one that I do not expect we will—when Hart and Cohle suffered an undisclosed but irreparable rupture of their partnership.

Pizzolatto is cunning in his scattering of such narrative breadcrumbs, his teases of events yet to come. We first heard about “that big throwdown in the woods” in episode two, but have yet to witness it; the stunning final shot of episode three (itself approached, then retreated from, minutes earlier) promised a confrontation that still lies ahead.

Yet perhaps the greatest revelation of True Detective lies in its decision to have all eight episodes shot by the same director, Fukunaga (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the same cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw). Customarily, top-tier shows—The Sopranos, The Wire, what have you—vary directors over the course of a season, and I’d occasionally been surprised at how little difference it seemed to make, episode to episode. What didn’t occur to me (though it should have) is that the multi-director format essentially requires the suppression of directorial style, a deliberate—and necessary—aiming for the lowest common denominator.

The genius of True Detective (again, somewhat obvious in retrospect) is that having a single director entails granting him license to direct. Fukunaga, moreover, is a talent on the rise: I still haven’t seen his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, but his 2009 debut feature, Sin Nombre, was a stunner. It is certainly no coincidence that True Detective is the only television show I can recall ever watching and thinking, over and over again, I wish I could see this in the theater. Fukunaga’s compositions are clean and meticulously balanced; his aerial shots and use of landscape superb (I loved the container ship passing in the background in episode three, with not a sliver of blue water in view); and the pyrotechnical panache of his six-minute, continuous-shot conclusion to episode four—well, the closest comparison that comes to mind is a similar bravura scene engineered by Alfonso Cuaron in Children of Men.

It is True Detective’s limited, eight-episode story arc—if there are future seasons, as seems likely, they will feature different stories and different casts—that enables the signing of talents such as McConaughey, Harrelson, and Fukunaga. (And that benefit is in addition to solving the hanging-around-one-season-too-many malady that has afflicted so many of television’s best shows.) Cinemax is evidently aiming for something similar with the Steven-Soderbergh-directed, Clive-Owen-starring miniseries The Knick later this year. It’s a format that could prove to be the next big step in the ongoing migration of talent from the large screen to the small.

What else can I praise about True Detective? The title sequence—it’s a small thing, but it serves as a tremendous place-setter, moody and evocative. The song, “Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family, finds a perfect balance midway between honkey tonk and satanic hymn. And the visuals, by Elastic, not only advertise that the Louisiana locale is the show’s third principal character, but also hint at its corrosive effect on the other two.

Could True Detective go astray in its latter half? Of course. That’s always a danger, and in this genre more so than most: a puzzle is, after all, only as good as its solution. But all signs to date seem promising, even the modest correctives that seem already to have taken place. The stately, gothic mood-setting of the first couple of episodes—a kind of dark-magical realism—has accelerated somewhat as the case unfolds, and conventions that might have proven confining have been disrupted. The first three episodes, for instance, all closed by zeroing in on present-day Cohle; the fourth telescoped outward to a (literal) helicopter’s-eye view of chaos unfolding on the ground in 1995. Where will future episodes veer? I don’t know. But I can’t wait to find out.



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scriptedending 11th-Feb-2014 07:12 pm (UTC)
I really hope this leads to more shows done this way. Quality > Quantity.
michelleantonia 12th-Feb-2014 01:03 pm (UTC)
IA, but then again, it REEEEALLY depends. The Bridge on FX had 13 eps, so did The Following (maybe 15?), but they were both so awful. There are so many factors involved in execution that I don't think something have a super short season is the deciding one. But you're right, it doesn't hurt. Forces them to trim the fat.
ani_di_franco 11th-Feb-2014 07:13 pm (UTC)
I love this show so much.
tracerbullitt 11th-Feb-2014 07:15 pm (UTC)
I like it. But it isn't the best. The Americans is the best rn.
redheadbynight 11th-Feb-2014 07:35 pm (UTC)
I agreeeeeeeee
false_hate 11th-Feb-2014 10:01 pm (UTC)
I can't wait for the second season of The Americans.
beatlesluv 11th-Feb-2014 11:50 pm (UTC)
icon loooooooooove
tangerinefriday 12th-Feb-2014 12:54 am (UTC)
Not even close.

But I respect your wildly differing opinion ;)
michelleantonia 12th-Feb-2014 01:04 pm (UTC)
oh man, I kinda found The Americans to be a letdown, especially in proportion to the hype it got. Not to say it isn't well done, but I simple CARE a hell of a lot more about these characters than I do about the ones on TA
kwerkee 11th-Feb-2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
They still haven't explain why Rust was having hallucinations.
ilouboutin 11th-Feb-2014 07:17 pm (UTC)
hm. i missed that. when was he hallucinating?
kwerkee 11th-Feb-2014 07:21 pm (UTC)
Episode 2 or 3. He was telling it to the cops questioning him. The cops kind of implied that maybe he was having blackouts.

I remember well because I was struck by the similarities to Hannibal. It's an amusing coincidence.
emilenshook 11th-Feb-2014 07:29 pm (UTC)
Rust linked that to his heavy drug use didn't he? Then they stopped altogether once he'd been clean a few years
ellesmereisland 11th-Feb-2014 08:27 pm (UTC)
He claims the hallucinations are due to his 4 years working in a "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" (I think that's the wording he uses). I guess his explanation is the residual effects of taking/being exposed to that many drugs + (I think) PTSD? And I guess even though he was trying to stay sober (at least off alcohol) at that point, he seemed to transfer pretty quickly from the undercover work to LA?
greencancer 11th-Feb-2014 08:35 pm (UTC)
PTSD and drug use
Plus, he's synaesthetic.

Edited at 2014-02-11 08:35 pm (UTC)
killetheth 11th-Feb-2014 08:36 pm (UTC)
didn't he say he had trouble sleeping? could be it
shoppingcart 11th-Feb-2014 09:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah I remember the sky getting all wonky when he was talking about his hallucinations in the car.
eaglefan2011 11th-Feb-2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
perfect show, i'm sad matthew and this storyline is only one season

Edited at 2014-02-11 07:17 pm (UTC)
sarahvma 11th-Feb-2014 07:58 pm (UTC)
It's a very cool idea and a great way of keeping the show fresh, though.
eaglefan2011 11th-Feb-2014 08:01 pm (UTC)
it is, but i want mooooore lol
shoppingcart 11th-Feb-2014 09:49 pm (UTC)
Was that confirmed?! How are they going to wrap this up in like..3-4 more episodes!!
ilouboutin 11th-Feb-2014 07:17 pm (UTC)
ugh. i cannot imagine another cast next season. i want this to last forever and everrrr
tangerinefriday 12th-Feb-2014 12:47 am (UTC)
turkish_popstar 11th-Feb-2014 07:18 pm (UTC)
I like this cast a lot but I want female detective leads next season
the_wolski 11th-Feb-2014 07:20 pm (UTC)

i would LOVE if like viola davis signed on for a season
turkish_popstar 11th-Feb-2014 07:35 pm (UTC)
I NEED this omw
hazejournal 11th-Feb-2014 07:26 pm (UTC)
that would be awesome
mary_pickforded 11th-Feb-2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
Frances McDormand and Octavia Spencer would be interesting.
michelleantonia 12th-Feb-2014 01:05 pm (UTC)
I don't know shit, BUT.. I feel like that's a distinct possibility
marley_love 11th-Feb-2014 07:19 pm (UTC)
here because of my newfound mcconnaissance, bless cohle and his beautiful haircut and amazing body
lulubelle007 11th-Feb-2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
all right all right all right
minikinsaff 11th-Feb-2014 09:33 pm (UTC)
When the fuck did he go from all right all right all right to a luminous object? I'm perplexed.
endingonfire 11th-Feb-2014 07:25 pm (UTC)
spankmypirate 11th-Feb-2014 07:26 pm (UTC)
yasssss haters can seethe until they drown in a pool of their own bitter tears!
nichcola 11th-Feb-2014 07:28 pm (UTC)
Yes to this and all of the comments that followed.
bienenkiste M T E11th-Feb-2014 07:29 pm (UTC)

such a great look omg
emilenshook 11th-Feb-2014 07:30 pm (UTC)
ikr I've fully accepted him into my heart
coutureable 11th-Feb-2014 08:17 pm (UTC)
Yessss him in the kitchen with Maggie and you see his upper body. Woah momma.
brownxeyedxdork 11th-Feb-2014 09:26 pm (UTC)
lovesetfire 11th-Feb-2014 10:17 pm (UTC)
leitao 12th-Feb-2014 05:53 am (UTC)
Same here. I can't believe I used to dislike MM. I have seen the light~
michelleantonia 12th-Feb-2014 01:07 pm (UTC)

except for me, it's not newfound. I've been a stan for years
whiskybars 11th-Feb-2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
i need to get my shit together and start watching this show
ichdontthinksoo 11th-Feb-2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
So this is only gonna last 8 episodes?

I wanna read the whole thing - and I don't mind spoilers - but is this the kind of show it's best to remain unspoiled for?
the_wolski 11th-Feb-2014 07:24 pm (UTC)
idk there's not really much to spoil imo

it's more the acting/atmosphere of the show that is the compelling part
ichdontthinksoo 11th-Feb-2014 07:26 pm (UTC)
My friend was rambling on fb how the last minutes of episode 4 were perfection so I thought it was some sort of huge revelation I should try to avoid lol I'll read the article then, thanks!
saintssin 11th-Feb-2014 07:30 pm (UTC)
There's literally nothing to spoil thus far. Nothing has actually happened. The plot hasn't really moved forward much at all.

Like the other poster said, the acting and atmosphere is what makes the show fantastic.
redleigh86 11th-Feb-2014 07:33 pm (UTC)
I personally don't think the article was spoilery at all, it's more of an explanation. It describes some shots and scenes but it's the context of them within the show that matters so you're not really being spoiled. So far there's nothing really to be spoiled on-- like the article says it's a character piece and the murder plot is secondary.
leitao 12th-Feb-2014 05:54 am (UTC)
Why read when you could be watching the show? :O
endingonfire 11th-Feb-2014 07:25 pm (UTC)
this show is so fucking good. I watched the newest episode last night, it was SO TENSE, I loved it.
kwerkee 11th-Feb-2014 07:26 pm (UTC)
Did McConaughey do this series first or Dallas Buyers Club? Did he steadily lose his weight here to get where he was at DBC or was he gaining back his weight in the series?
josh_the_k 11th-Feb-2014 07:31 pm (UTC)
This was shot about a year ago. So I think it was after "Dallas."
kwerkee 11th-Feb-2014 07:33 pm (UTC)
I see, thanks. I was just curious.
saintssin 11th-Feb-2014 07:28 pm (UTC)
The writing is not particularly great. It's a high production show that focuses on characters we've seen ten million times. Se7en is a good comparison, and the writing is much, much better. The rule to drama is balance--this is as nihilistic as it gets, and there's no breaks that allow me to believe that these characters are human. Even the most tragic man can make you laugh.

With that said, this show has the best acting and directing on television. It's on another level of excellence. If the writing catches up, this will go down as something very special. Hell, it probably already will.
itwalksamongus 11th-Feb-2014 07:49 pm (UTC)
For me it's the best show on tv right now, even better than Hannibal. I cannot get on board with Dancy's portrayal of Will Graham.

But, yeah, the writing on True Detective is a bit too cliché sometimes, especially Cohle is too much of a stock character at this point. At times he sounds like someone who stumbled out of a The Works Of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer lecture or has read too much Michel Houellebecq. But that may be intentional as well so let's wait and see how it pans out. MMs acting makes up for that though.
kwikimart 11th-Feb-2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
You make a good point there about the lack of humour BUT I think the humour is there it's just darker

I think the humour is in Marty and Rust's banter, for example Marty mocking Rust's philosophical monologues or how slowly he walks

I thought them butting heads with some of the other cops was kind of funny and their present day selves are much more jokey
feijoana 11th-Feb-2014 09:45 pm (UTC)
This. I think the show is really funny actually. I laugh out loud several times every episode. The humor flows in a natural way, which is rare in drama shows IMO.
lillylilacs 11th-Feb-2014 10:43 pm (UTC)
tangerinefriday 12th-Feb-2014 12:49 am (UTC)
Yeah there are def things I've laughed at.
lovefifteen 14th-Feb-2014 03:12 am (UTC)
eh, i dont agree. any humor beyond what they've already done would be too much for the show and clash with the gothic tone. for me, the biggest weakness (and maybe strength?) is that the writing is so dense and the characters often deliver the lines so quickly/unintelligibly (i can't understand woody half the time, he keeps talking with his lower jaw) that it can be hard to follow. i find myself turning lines over a lot in my head, trying to unwrap what's been said, for better or worse.

pizzolotto has a strong background in prose, so i think the transition from that to dialogue may also be a cause
ilouboutin 11th-Feb-2014 07:29 pm (UTC)
also, i can't believe how many people seem to just now realize that MM is, like, super talented.
kwerkee 11th-Feb-2014 07:39 pm (UTC)
It's kinda his fault though. After A Time To Kill, he could easily have been a critic's darling. But he did romcoms and such. Though, maybe he didn't have a choice back then, idk.

Edited at 2014-02-11 07:40 pm (UTC)
crackedbelljar Re: 11th-Feb-2014 08:49 pm (UTC)
Not that he's comparable but James Franco said he purposely did big budget flops to get his name out there. Matthew is a household name now because of all the chick flicks he's been in. It's a smart move on his part- he made bank and now he's doing dream projects that are of a higher caliber.

Edited at 2014-02-11 08:49 pm (UTC)
kwikimart 11th-Feb-2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
That's 100% on him, don't even try to put that on us lol
takobella 11th-Feb-2014 09:05 pm (UTC)
That's why I hate him lol

He sold out and did shitty movies for like 10 years
brownxeyedxdork 11th-Feb-2014 09:29 pm (UTC)
I think it's another Mark Ruffalo situation. They're both talented actors, but people are so used to seeing them in Rom-Coms, which aren't bad movies mind you, that when they do show up in dramas, it shocks the hell out of those people who are so used to seeing them in certain films.
jumpers 11th-Feb-2014 10:23 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm not sure if I ever thought he was especially talented, but I have ALWAYS liked him, and I'm not even a chick-flick kinda gal. I remember my mom taking notice that I liked him a long time ago and being amused by that...it's really rare for me to differentiate white guy actors tbh.
lillylilacs 11th-Feb-2014 10:44 pm (UTC)
ia. he definitely wasn't trying for a while, but he was a talented character actor early in his career
tangerinefriday 12th-Feb-2014 01:07 am (UTC)
Yeah, he's always had it, but he just started giving a shit a couple years ago (around Lincoln Lawyer prob??) and it's been all steady uphill from there.

People lose interest and resent you when you phone it in, I think. As much as people like to bitch about pretentious actors and everyone taking themselves too seriously, few people stand for nothing but inane fun in circles. Doesn't matter though cause everyone's forgetting about that now :)
josh_the_k 11th-Feb-2014 07:29 pm (UTC)
After Sunday's episode, there's no way this isn't the best show on TV. It's been a long time since I watched a show and spent days afterward thinking about it and absorbing what I saw.

Rust's monologues touch a nerve with me not only for the great writing but for how I've thought/said something similar to what Rust says. Hearing a TV character say it is kind of unsettling at times. And McConaughey's performance is just mesmerizing.
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