[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.
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.
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.