‘True Detective’ Series Premiere Review

Published 1 year ago by

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective Season 1 Episode 1 True Detective Series Premiere Review

[This is a review of True Detective season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]

When it comes to television’s ongoing obsession with serial killers and the damaged men who relentlessly pursue them, HBO’s True Detective could be considered a little late to the party. Flipping through the channels on any given evening, or even attempting the nigh-impossible task of emptying one’s DVR will likely result in the viewing – inadvertent or otherwise – of a considerable amount of slayings. Some are ritualistic and haunting in nature, while others wind up being depicted as a flash in the pan – a terrible, gruesome event readily solved in the span of a television hour, proving over and over again that there is darkness in the world, but also a light ready to illuminate even the most Stygian blackness.

When depicted on television, the abnormality of the act itself is often made the focal point; it is the mainspring from which the program comes into existence. Lately, though, there has been an overload of deranged lunatics cutting a swath through narratives both long and short, slicing up familiar faces and new ones alike, as well as the occasional feature film star making the jump to television, now that the prestige of the medium’s so-called Golden Age has helped lift the stigma surrounding such (temporary) career transitions.

At any rate, a quick glimpse of any network or cable channel’s weekly programming schedule will likely reveal at least one program – critically acclaimed or deservedly panned – that focuses on the dogged pursuit of some disturbed predator. All of this seems to lead to one distinct conclusion: Television has officially reached peak serial killer.

Since programming trends are generally cyclical, and murder TV will never truly fade away, the unrelenting grimness of True Detective presents a strong subtextual argument of how the fascination with abhorrent deviant behavior has begun to make even the most ardent viewer a little weary of all the gloom. If there is a call for a cutback to serial killer-driven plotlines, then True Detective seems to be making a case for that in the background of its own narrative.

Even the series’ taglines of “Darkness becomes you” and “Touch darkness and darkness touches you back” are so overt in highlighting the thematic nature of the show, the minds behind them seem to have deliberately stopped just short of saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” hinting, to some extent that, if serial killer dramas really have run their course, then by all means, this is that pre-dawn darkness.

Woody Harrelson in True Detective Season 1 Episode 1 True Detective Series Premiere Review

Such a sense of self-aware exceptionalism is evident not only in the episode’s title, ‘The Long Bright Dark,’ but also in how the series extols virtues different from much of what’s come before – most of which is due to the way the program was made and how well those involved have executed its rather specific and (admittedly) striking design.

What sets True Detective apart – other than being on HBO – is that it was conceived as the eight-episode opening of an anthology series, to be driven primarily by the creative choices of its writer Nic Pizzolatto (The Killing) and director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre). Unlike most programs that bring in different writers and directors for each episode, Pizzolatto and Fukunaga serve as the series’ sole writer and director, a choice that lends a distinct, singular vision to the proceedings that becomes more than simply aiming for something cinematic.

With stars like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, it’s not hard to imagine many stopping at the cinematic comparison, likely stating that the seven hours of television that follow the premiere are the equivalent of “a long movie.” But such a comparison would be a disservice to the work that has been done here, as Pizzolatto and Fukunaga haven’t simply devised and then cut up an eight-hour movie; they’ve managed to craft several compelling individual chapters and arranged as a long-form story.

The primary conceit of True Detective is, of course, the ritualistic homicide that Louisiana homicide detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) successfully investigate in 1995 – or so they thought. Another aspect that makes the show unique is how the narrative is told from the perspective of two distinct time periods: the initial investigation run by Cohle and Martin circa 1995, and a new investigation wherein Cohle and Martin recount their initial experience to two new detectives, Gilbough (Michael Potts, Nurse Jackie, The Wire) and Papania (Tory Kittles, Olympus Has Fallen), respectively, in 2012.

Normally, this kind of dual narrative simply boils down the writer being overly burdened with showing the work of his narrative math – that is: the need to make sure all the pieces line up often take precedence over those pieces having actual meaning or some greater purpose. In this case, however, there is no solving for X; the storyline isn’t necessarily working to come together – rather, one narrative is generating a series of new intangibles by poking holes in the other. And a great deal of the effectiveness of this device has to do with the quality of the performances by McConaughey and Harrelson and the dichotomy of their characters, both to one another and their past and future selves.

Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle in True Detective Season 1 Episode 1 True Detective Series Premiere Review

McConaughey continues his stellar career resurgence with a character whose dour misanthropy and continual unprompted philosophical pontifications quickly border on the tedious (another possible example of the series’ self-awareness), and yet there’s something about him (likely McConaughey’s performance) that makes the character someone we want to follow. His transformation from rigid note taker with the not-as-bad-as-it-could-be moniker of “The Taxman,” to a mustachioed chain-smoker beholden to scheduled bouts of binge drinking is so drastic, it sparks a mystery that’s certainly more compelling than the various murders of young women – with or without their Hannibal-esque tableaus.

Early on, Cohle’s portion of the story is so beefy that it winds up overshadowing other performances, and while Harrelson certainly holds his own as Cohle’s chatty counterpart (complete with his own personal demons), his swagger and self-described “regular-dude” qualities don’t quite generate the same magnetism as McConaughey’s former narcotics detective with a redacted past. Meanwhile, in the early parts of the series, talented actors like Michelle Monaghan (playing Hart’s wife, Maggie) and the aforementioned Kittles and Potts, wind up feeling like little more than set dressing.

And yet the story still feels gripping because of how well it’s been made. A decadent excursion into darkness, True Detective is one gorgeous piece of television. As talented a cinematographer as he is a director, Fukunaga (with the help of series cinematographer Adam Arkpaw) opens many of the scenes with long aerial shots overlooking the marshy vistas of Louisiana like an illusionist pulling up his sleeves to convince the audience he has nothing to hide. Such attempts at transparency, however, shrewdly leave viewers scanning the horizon for signs of wickedness to come.

TV and film love to unravel a murder mystery; but often the story is so concerned with the how, the who, and the why, it rarely examines the lasting effect murder leaves on those unwittingly asked to remember it, either by association to the victim, or in this case, by answering those initial questions, only to seemingly come up short. In True Detective, that shift in priority serves the series quite well, as it keeps the story going and keeps it from becoming static or too mired in its own relentless melancholy.

It also makes this series something worth watching.


True Detective continues next Sunday with ‘Seeing Things’ @9pm on HBO.

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  1. this was a great start. I was taken back by the acting of the two main actors and it felt like I was watching a movie not a tv show. it brought me back to the first time I watched silence of the lambs. cant wait till next week

  2. This is a great article! And I mean that in so many levels.
    I loved this episode. There aren’t really any words to describe the feeling I had when I saw it, yet to say anything at all would do it no justice. Woody and Matthew were great; especially happy to see Woody something he deserves.
    Hope HBO continues to bring shows that have strong and layered characters and interesting plots.
    Fingers crossed for American Gods!

  3. Kevin, that was one brilliantly written review. Not just content; language and style are top draw and imminently readable. Thank you.

    • I agree, this is terrifically thought out. For a moment I thought this was going to be a negative review, and I would have liked to have seen more kudos for the quality of the writing, but very well done.
      I thought this opening episode was simply marvellous. The writing was almost poetic at times, direction and cinematography, pacing, colouring…all top notch. I’m hooked, Matt is just so good in this ( ‘hustle with the beer’ ), I am beyond excited to see what more beauty is to come.
      I loved the look on Woody;s face towards the end of the family dinner, first class gurn!
      I can’t reccommend this highly enough, it is a superior television show.

  4. Woody looks good with fake hair.

  5. Liked what I saw so far. Feels like it will be an interesting character study and look into how people can get dragged down when dealing with dark, evil things. The telling of the story from two time periods could have been jarring, but the story is beginning in one sense with a news case while the old case and the two cops who supposedly solved it are being questioned due to new events.

  6. It’s good that HBO gave the creative people behind this show more freedom to create
    something more focused and not watered down by so many other writers !
    Thats exactly what we need !

    Feel really tired of shows that feel one like the other,just with different faces !
    HBO Thanks !

    Good review !


  7. A masterful start to a series that certainly had quite the amount of hype to live up to. Brought to mind the narrative trick of ‘The Prestige’, what with momentum dictated not by ad breaks or linear conventions but by recounting from the two principals themselves, the conclusion of the story already reached as it were, the destination the fascination. It is a difficult balance to calculate in terms of when to reveal the cards.

    What was fascinating with ‘The Prestige’ was the nature of contradictions the two principals presented in relation to each version of the story. The primary difference here then (so far anyways) is no such contradiction exists. Both are offering similar informational strands, both exhibiting lasting effects of things we do not know. The contention above that the character of Woody Harrelson holds not the level of interest as his counterpart rings true in the ’95 segment. But the genius here is that it is in the present where said character holds all the notes. Purposeful? I would suggest so, yes.

    There is a slight danger with this format though, in the sense many scenes would themselves have no place in a story being told by a perspective (Hart being woken by his wife for example. Would that really have been relayed to the police during the interview?) and as such, backs up the idea that they will serve as little more than window dressing at odds with the overall style and structure. Time will tell on this one.

    Whatever the case, I was mesmerised by it and barely moved an inch for the whole hour. Indeed, had I been presented with all eight episodes, I can easily picture a scenario where an empty bottle would’ve sufficed for the toilet breaks.

  8. I got it on the DVR and ready to check out tonight but I am glad to hear that it did, so far, live up to the hype. I can’t wait to check it out tonight now. Hopefully we have another winner and something special on our hands like a GOT or a BB.

    • Because of the actors/cinematoghraphy involved it feels like a movie on a level only GOT is on at this point

  9. My simple reaction to the premiere…
    I want more.

    It’s a sign that we are in for something special when you have a slow burn episode yet the hour flys bye. Seriously, when the episode ended all I could think of was that I wish I could watch another episode right away.

  10. My god this has to be one of the most pretentious reviews ever written.

  11. **************Spoiler Alert********************

    The killer is recreating an ancient Celtic hunting principle which is both a living expression and an objective. What he has done is to substitute a human female for a doe but one that is ‘sick’ or a ‘sickness’ to society which makes her a ‘target’ for the hunt. The crown of horns is deification of the sacrifice which is why she is left in supplication at the base of the sacred tree, that being the only tree found in a field that produces the stuff of life; food. She has not been eaten but given back whole to the god of fertility and life. She has been marked with the sign of life, motion and life-cycle repeating endlessly. It is duplicitous, she is part of the whole meaning the cycle he is living has begun with her but the ‘target’ was on her back because she works on her back so she brought her fate upon herself and ultimately “his hunt” is designed to have an ending as “he” will be “hunted” by those who find her; a self-immolation to god. He is protesting societies inability maintain balance through morality and laws.

    Understanding the sacred groves concept will solve this. Pre-historic man had two ways to survive; grow food, hunt and gather. In order to take advantage of one or either they had to find ways to ensure they would eat so they used trickery on animals by growing crops both in fields where they lived and planting sacred groves of fruit, nut and berry-yielding trees along natural migration routes and paths. This creates “cycles” for life, for hunting and gathering or agricultural living in known areas whereby you do not need one or the other to survive but you must know where the harvesting groves are located on these routes. “Harvesting” and “hunting” grounds which are where you will find this killer and where he is waiting for the detectives.

    This “cycle” is one that repeats once the right mind truly understands what he is doing for society; motivating them towards a more moral path like the planting of the groves, he is guiding the animals. The killer has chosen his death, he has chosen the place it will happen and he has chosen his victims before the first death happened. I know the ending because it is in mythology, research the Silver and Golden Boughs.

    Finally a series that is eye-candy for anthropologists. I speculate that something is missing from the ‘altar’ or basket of sticks they found?

  12. First episode was truely fascinating. Can’t wait to see what they do with it.

  13. Finally started airing here over the weekend and managed to watch it today.

    Masterful show. Loved this episode for so many reasons, can’t wait for the next one.

  14. Kevin,

    This is one of my few visits here at screenrant. Usually I am uncomfortable in reading reviews from others, either incomplete or far too loaded.

    However, with yours here, I don’t feel that discomfort. This form of longhand review, with details on design, story, direction, and performances is whole. I thoroughly enjoyed it as it revealed critical investigation (:D).

    I do not know how long you’ve written for screenrant (a task I’m soon to squish), but I will soon return because of you.

    I felt strong appreciation for this quality blog post, and I thought I should comment in kind. Others reading within this comments’ section, you already know this. For those that don’t, this is one of the finer reviewers of all the Internet’s many corners.

    Thank you for details on images and observations, and I bid you happy posting in the future.

  15. Really great storyline, fabulous filming, atmospheric, the dialogue – not so much!
    I think we needed subtitles – there were more Mumbles than in Swansea.
    At least most of the action was visible – unlike The Following where night-vision goggles were needed.
    Hope the next series is equally good but also with actual words in it – helps no end with understanding the plot