The best thing about True Detective is that its well-established visual style and powerful acting compels viewers to stick with it despite the subject matter. There are many old standbys for hour-long dramas on television: doctor, lawyer, and cop dramas are three of the most prevalent. It's safe to say that violent criminal shows–meaning series that either focus on criminals like serial killers as a protagonist (Dexter), a team of investigators tracking a perpetrator (Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU), or both (Hannibal, The Following)-—are at least equal to standard police procedurals. For every Southland that falls by the wayside, there's something like The Killing that lives on to investigate more violent crime. Unlike somewhat stodgy workplace dramas that follow doctors or lawyers, the violent crime subset has visceral shock value on its side. But if that's the only card a show has to play, it can get exhausting rather quickly.
What separates True Detective from other series that obsessively catalogue dead female bodies or attempt to find the human side of serial killers is the show's ambition in style and scope. I hesitate to crown True Detective as one of the best new shows of the year already, simply because of its familiar content. Andy Greenwald at Grantland ran into a similar problem. But my hesitation doesn't mean I don't appreciate its impeccable style and refreshing approach to how American audiences consume television. This is an eight-episode season unfurling a single investigation that won't linger on. Like Top Of The Lake, this is an extended but protracted narrative with a defined endpoint.
For those of you new to the show, let's cover the basics: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson headline as Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, respectively, who have been partners for three months in Louisiana's Criminal Investigation Department when they encounter the murder of a young woman. She has been tied up, her corpse left in a sugar cane field that was subsequently burned. A crown of deer antlers is affixed to her head, strange symbols drawn on her back, and some interlaced twig contraptions (like bird traps) are scattered around the body. It's a ritualistic murder, one that suggests the incident has occurred before and will occur again. They're dealing with a serial killer who wanted to be noticed. This discovery sets off an investigation that traverses tent church congregations, prostitutes at trucker bars, and ramshackle fishing communities in exceedingly sparse areas of Louisiana.
To say that McConaughey has been on a bit of a hot streak lately is to say that LeBron James is a reasonably accomplished basketball player. The guy is operating on a level nobody else can match right now, and to get to see him inhabit a wounded and wandering powder keg like Cohle for eight hours instead of two and a half in a film is a thing of beauty.
Harrelson doesn't just sit idly by either, and as the first three episodes of True Detective have progressed, he has emerged as the detective more prone to excessive force and self-delusion. McConaughey was originally recruited to play Hart, but campaigned to play Cohle until he got it. That decision has turned out splendidly, with two eminently watchable performances butting heads at work on a case that seems to get more mysterious as it goes on.
The other element that True Detective negotiates better than so many other shows is a fluid timeline. The case takes place mostly in 1995, with Cohle and Hart running down leads and getting to know each other. "Hart has a wife and two daughters but is so restless that his poorly kept relationship secret quickly becomes a problem for his delicately cultivated image as the consummate family man.
Cohle was once married, but his marriage dissolved after an accident after which he spent years mired in drug abuse as a floating undercover agent. That has infected Rust's worldview to the point where he's the stereotypically philosophical pessimist in contrast to Marty's poorly maintained sheen of lightly religious affability.
But the frame story around the case is also intriguing. Michael Potts (Brother Mouzone from The Wire) and Tory Kittles are two detectives investigating a similar case in 2012 that would send big ripples back through the previous investigation. So they go back and interview Rust and Marty, both in various states of disarray, after their partnership broke apart in 2002.
So there are two big mysteries at hand: what happened with the 1995 investigation, which yielded an arrest that makes no sense in light of the new case with similar hallmarks, and what about the end of that 1995 case festered for years to force Rust and Marty apart down such widely divergent paths?
It's insanely compelling, mostly because it focuses on these men and how they function instead of the gruesome details of the crimes (so far, at least).
Take one series of small details over the first three episodes.
In the pilot, Hart and Cohle drive down the road, and Cohle sees a little girl touching a telephone pole. He turns to Hart and asks, "Do you believe in ghosts?" At that point, it comes off as some strange non-sequitur throwaway establishing how strange Marty finds Rust. But later, after a rather catastrophic dinner at Marty's house which brings up bad family memories for Rust, it makes more sense. And in the next episodes, Rust discusses his visions, and while on a date, his synesthesia. Those kernels all inform that first scene, and we begin to understand the more significant meaning of Rust's past still haunting him: it drives him to force a certain narrative of the case, not heeding Marty's professional warning to separate ideas from facts. That's the element I find most intriguing about the story so far: how Hart and Cohle's respective philosophies each critique the other's personal life.
There are a few small issues I still have with True Detective outside of the content—-which, I must say again, has been decidedly less deliberately gory than other shows in this vein.
One issue I have with the show is that it's almost exclusively a male world. I'm almost surprised that the T. Bone Burnett-supervised soundtrack hasn't used James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World." The detectives investigating crimes are men (except for the receptionist who takes coffee orders). Hart's wife (played adequately by Michelle Monaghan) and other women serve mostly to elucidate Hart's hypocrisies. The only women given agency or more than one note as a character are prostitutes. But there haven't been many lingering, voyeuristic shots of grotesquely mangled corpses. As Harrelson's Detective Hart states, it's still the sickest case he's seen in his years working for CID, but by 2014 television standards, it's nothing compared to the incessantly violent crimes splattered across the broadcast and cable networks.
Hannibal is the only other show on television in this genre that elevates style to such a point where it demands attention. Bryan Fuller's NBC drama is a meticulously crafted psychological thriller that deals explicitly with the toll that investigating a string of serial killings can take on even the most brilliant investigative mind. The series digs around in the psyches of its major characters. The sound design is particularly unsettling, unique for a television show. True Detective isn't quite interested in that level of scrutiny. It's more concerned with how it shines a light into the dark corners at precisely the right moment, to illuminate one bit of Rust or Marty's story in order to reveal a precise bit of information at exactly the right time. In that way it's easy to feel the authorial hand guiding the sequence of events, but the acting is so strong and lived-in that it hardly seems to matter.
Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga helmed all eight episodes, which were all written by series creator and novelist Nic Pizzolatto. And given that the show had the highest debut numbers for an HBO series since the Martin Scorsese-directed pilot for Boardwalk Empire, the odds of a second season are almost guaranteed at this point. What makes that exciting is the quasi-Twilight Zone approach to serialized anthology storytelling. True Detective has a finite amount of time in which to reveal the entire web of this case between Cohle and Hart in Louisiana, and then it'll move onto a different crime story in a completely different setting with new characters. Hopefully, like American Horror Story, it will be able to retain a few of the company players.
Tonight's episode is the fourth of True Detective, meaning that it's already halfway over. That's not a shame, because McConaughey, Harrelson, Fukunaga and Pizzolatto are turning in excellent work that appears to have a clearly defined purpose and thematic destination.
• Pizzolatto works with a novelist's mind, and the best evidence for that is Shea Whigham of Boardwalk Empire as the tent preacher Joel Theriot. Though the episode where Cohle and Hart stand in the back and debate the intellectual fortitude of the people in attendance (Cohle: "Nobody here's going to be splitting the atom, Marty.") Pizzolatto tweeted out the full video of the sermon he wrote for Theriot. It's a beautifully acted scene from Whigham. And it shows how much thought Pizzolatto has put into the world of True Detective's first season-—even the moments that don't make the final cut of an episode.
• Another novelist touch: the former LSU pitcher that Hart and Cohle go to see in the pilot as they investigate crimes with a similar feel. That's the kind of supporting character that could be a stock Law & Order crate-moving guy who doesn't stop to talk to the homicide detectives, but in Pizzolatto's hand ended up giving Harrelson some great lines while sketching someone memorable.
• The end of the pilot, with McConaughey closing a flask, boring into both detectives' brains with sunken eyes as he spits, "Then start asking the right fuckin' questions," will go down as one of the best line deliveries of the year.
• A funny Tumblr, by and for fans of True Detective: truedetectiveconversations.tumblr.com.