We are, supposedly, in a golden age of television, but with Breaking Bad finished, and Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire taking their final bow over the next year, it’s been difficult to see what great televisual achievement people will be talking about a few years from now. Enter True Detective. Episode one airs on Sky Atlantic tonight, February 22. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I’ve seen the first five episodes of the American show, and it is possibly the most enjoyable first five episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
True Detective follows Louisiana police officers Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), as they investigate the murder of a woman ritually posed in a burning field. That synopsis, and the generic title of the show, could well lead you to believe that True Detective is another gruesome police procedural. It isn’t, instead handling its unimaginative-seeming set-up using masterful storytelling coupled with depth, intellect, humour, originality and two outstanding central performances. Below are five reasons in particular to watch the show.
Great storytelling and an innovative structure
The show gets the basic elements right, using an innovative structure in the first few episodes. The main action, taking place in 1995, is framed by separate interviews two police officers are conducting with Marty and Rust in 2012. Thanks to the performances from the main actors, particularly McConaughey, and good costume and hair and makeup work, the characters appear completely different in their 2012 scenes. It hooks you from the first episode, because you want to know what terrible thing could have happened to change these detectives so radically.
The structure is used to great effect throughout. Episode three builds to a frightening conclusion using a focused monologue from 2012 Rust before cutting ominously to a single 1995 shot of an open field with a masked man walking across it, while 2012 Rust narrates his nihilistic philosophy over the top.
The structure also allows for a very clever use of an unreliable narrator, contrasting the things the 2012 detectives say – about events, feelings, family – with the reality of their lives as shown in 1995.
Then there’s the story; a well-constructed rollercoaster, filled with timed lulls before exciting action. ‘Episode four is the beginning of act two,’ writer Nic Pizzolatto said in this – spoiler-filled – interview. ‘Suddenly, the rhythm of the entire show changes. The slow part is over now. The first three episodes move at a very deliberate, almost funereal cadence, like you’re marching toward something.’ The story is so well executed you are left constantly wanting more.
Here’s the thing though: unlike most shows, True Detective has an anthology format, meaning each season will have a different story with different characters and actors. While that means we’ll only get eight episodes in total with Marty and Rust, it also means there is no filler, no dead-air, no wheel spinning. Every scene of every episode is gripping and tight. You might be left wanting more at the end of an episode, but you never feel underfed – there’s always plenty to chew on as you wait for the next episode.
The dialogue and philosophy
McConaughey’s Rust is a broken man who never got over the death of his daughter. He speaks in lengthy nihilistic monologues about the emptiness of existence and the falsehood at the heart of identity. ‘I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,’ he says. ‘We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self… I think the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction; one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.’
In the 1995 scenes, the potential for this dialogue to ring false and feel overwritten is killed by Woody Harrelson’s excellent, funny put-down responses. ‘Hmm, that sounds God fucking awful Rust,’ or a simple ‘Jesus, you’re a prick.’ In the 2012 scenes, it’s just great fun to watch McConaughey monologue into the camera, pulling together philosophical strands woven throughout an episode and the series as a whole.
The philosophy is all cribbed from existing work. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a book by Thomas Ligotti, is the major influence. There’s a good reading list here of books the show is indebted to.
Away from the philosophy, the back-and-forth between Marty and Rust is fantastic, a credit not just to the acting and written dialogue, but the strength of the characters.
Marty: ‘I’ve noticed you have a tendency towards myopia, tunnel vision… it blows investigations…it’s obsessive.’
Rust: ‘You’re obsessive too, just not about the job.’
Marty: ‘Not me brother; I keep things even, separate. Like the way I can have this one beer without needing twenty.’
Rust: ‘People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.’
Marty: ‘I try not to be too hard on myself.’
Rust: ‘Well, that’s real big of ya.’
Marty: ‘You know the real difference between you and me?’
Rust: ‘Yep: denial.’
Marty: ‘The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now that sounds like denial to me.’
Rust: ‘I doubt that.’
True Detective is one of those rare shows where you watch each week in large part just to hear the characters speak.
The acting and directing
McConaughey and Harrelson are both very good in the show. McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise in the last few years, the so called McConaissance, and all of that praise earned from his True Detective performance is justified. His 2012 Rust is a different character from his 1995 version, and that is very hard to pull off. Sure, he’s helped by the writing and change in his appearance, but those elements can only do so much. Listening to the 2012 Rust speak, he is a changed man; the 1995 Rust with the little vestige of hope that was keeping him together removed.
Harrelson does well as a family man, content with his life, but one who in actuality is fucking it all up. His 2012 performance is more subtle than McConaughey’s, acting like a perfectly happy individual, but showing hints of the scars built up from the show’s other timeline. The comic relief he provides in the 1995 scenes is a very important part of the show, and without it McConaughey’s character just wouldn’t work; the actors complement each other perfectly.
Cary Joji Fukunaga directs True Detective and makes his mark on it with some fantastic shots. The above mentioned climax to episode three is beautifully put together – the perfect break into a second act – one which works expertly alongside the writing and McConaughey’s delivery of the dialogue. Most notable though is a six minute-long tracking shot – done in one take without cuts – of a drug theft gone wrong in an inner city housing project. It is utterly mesmerizing in all its violent, claustrophobic intensity, and, importantly, puts the story ahead of the eye-catching directing, meaning it doesn’t revel in its own cleverness.
True Detective is scary but the fear comes not from cheap shocks but from coupling the literal scares with its existential philosophy. The best horror writers have always understood that fear is often based on internal worries. To quote Stephen King: ‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’ Or: ‘Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.’ Or, from Robert Bloch: ‘Horror is the removal of masks.’
True Detective explorers our most powerful fears, the ones we try not to think about: failure, the repetition of mistakes, loneliness and emptiness and concerns about the point(lessness) of existence, of how life slips through our fingers and passes us by. By wrapping this up in a thrilling story about murder, serial killers and strange cults, the show manages to be scary in a way that digs into your skin and stays there long after the credits.
The commentary on television
There was a British show about a serial killer and police investigation that aired last year. It was called The Fall, and it got rave reviews. I heavily criticised it, mainly for being gratuitous and revelling in its scenes of female death (although, it had plenty of other flaws too). True Detective is The Fall done right. It uses its murders not as cheap thrills but as jumping off points for drama and intellectual thought, and goes so far as to address the violent nature of television itself.
Pizzolatto has spoken a little bit about this:
‘We only have the one murdered woman at the crime scene in the entire series. It’s not an unrelenting horror show. It’s meant to stand in for the universal victim in this type of drama. Because while I think we’re doing a good job of telling the story that this genre demands, I think we’re also poking certain holes in it and looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience.
‘In episode five—not to spoil anything—Cohle gives one of his metaphysical addresses [about the circular, repetitive nature of existence]. And you can see it as Job crying out to an uncaring God—or you could see it as a character trapped in a TV show yelling at the audience.’
True Detective has depth. There are multiple layers to it. You can spend hours following up on its mythology and philosophy and discussing its ideas and themes. It’s only five episodes old, but it’s hard to see anything stopping the show becoming another entry in the list of incredible art that has come from television over the last decade and a half.Follow @SquirrelCritic