True Detective is HBO’s new anthology series, created by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga. The show got everyone’s attention last year was when it was announced that the starring roles in the eight episode series would be given to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was around this time that McConaughey had started taking roles (Lincoln Lawyer, Mudd, Dallas Buyers Club) that would change how people perceived him as an actor. The combination of HBO trying an anthology series with two movie stars, a first time show runner. and a young director with a lot of hype behind him got me incredibly excited for the show. If True Detective is successful it may convince other networks to go with an anthology structure for shows, which would be more appealing to actors/directors/writers who would not normally work in television due to how much of a time synch traditional TV shows are.
Before I get into the review I just want to mention that I’m going to be spoiling the events of the first two episodes, so if you haven’t watched the show yet you may want to stop reading.
Again: Spoiler Alert!
True Detective is the story of Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson), two detectives who are assigned to investigate the murder of Dora Kelly, down in the boondocks of Louisiana in the summer of 1995. The main hook of the story is that it is told in flashbacks, as Rustin and Martin give debriefings in 2012. This allows the viewer to see how the years have changed our characters, and we learn at the end of episode one that there has been a murder that fits the profile of the series of murders committed in 95, even though Rust and a Martin were able to catch the supposed murderer. In the two episodes of the show that have aired the 2012 scenes have mostly served as a framing device for the events that transpired, but I assume that will change in the coming weeks.
This is Martin and Rust’s first case together and it’s immediately apparent that the the two characters could not be any more different. Martin is the veteran detective and family man who does the job by the numbers and is, at first blush, as stable a character as you are going to get in a gritty crime drama. Rust has a nihilistic view about the universe. His daughter died in an accident when she was only three, and shorty after that his marriage fell apart. Whatever was left of Rust’s humanity is destroyed when he served for four years as an undercover narcotics officer. Rust works this job because it’s a way to stay in touch with the human race. He has a sharp mind, and an instinct that makes him a great detective. He’s the model of a hard-boiled investigator.
The plot in True Detective is pretty standard fare for the genre. The murder in question has some connections to the occult, or some other kind of ritualist following. The two detectives do a lot of driving around, chasing leads. We get a peek into to the lives of various seedy people in the Louisiana bayou. In the first episode Rust hits up one of the girls he is questioning for some drugs. In the second episode Martin get’s upset when he realizes that one of the girls that’s working at the same bunny ranch the victim used to be employed at is underage. If feels likes as we get deeper into the show, we are learning more about the detectives lives than how the life of Dora Kelly ended.
There are a couple of things that make True Detective an astonishing series: the cinematography and the acting, specifically the acting of one Mr. Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey is mesmerizing. If five years ago you were to tell me that Wooderson was going to play the role of a quiet, brooding detective - and be great in it - I would have laughed in your face. The role of rusty requires an actor who can underplay the part, and also someone who can seem believable when spouting out long tangents, on the existential dread of existence. These are not skills I associate with the man who once played Wooderson. It’s spellbinding to watch such an out of nowhere, brilliant performance. A lot of Rusty’s dialogue is overwritten, as in they are lines that you would expect in a novel, but shouldn’t work on TV, but McConaughey has so completely let the character engulf him, that nothing he says ever seems out of place.
A lot of what makes McConaughey so good in this show is having Harrelson to play off of. The two are electric when they are on the screen at the same time. I can not believe the two have never filmed anything together before. It’s old hat to have detective duo that does not get along, but you never think about the cliche when they are talking about the differences in their life philosophies, because they are so damn compelling to watch. Two episodes into the show we learn that Rusty is not just a jaded, drugged up washout; and Martin is not the model of professionalism and civic values that he portends to be. That more than anything is what this show seems to be about: they murky grey space in which we live our lives. How can we carry on in such a random, often times unfair universe where heinous murders happen everyday and even underage girls have to sell their body just to make ends-meat?
It would be a disservice to not talk about how absolutely stunning this show looks. There have been a lot of comparisons made between the Fukunaga and David Fincher, and I think they have some merit. The way True Detective is shot, with it’s washed out palette and almost photographic sensibility is definitely Fincher’esque’. There are some scenes in episode two that also lean a little bit on another David, David Lynch. The combination of hyperrealism and surrealism is an intoxicating mix for me. Fukunaga is also getting absolutely great performances out of his actors, and while he clearly has a lot of talent to work with, it still takes a good motivator to get the absolute best from that talent.
In an age where there murder mysteries are a staple of almost every major network, it takes a lot to stand out. This show is a testament to what happens when you get the right people together with the right story, and let them create. True Detective uses the same playbook as other shows in its genre, it just executes on a much higher level. The only thing that I haven’t found particularly interesting about True Detective is, ironically, the investigation of the crime. This is because I just want to know more about these fantastic characters. I could watch McConaughey and a Harrelson play these roles in any setting: line cooks, lion trainers, Olympic curlers, you name it - especially if Fukunaga was filming it. If the investigation plotline actually becomes a compelling element of the show, and I imagine it will given the fact that all of the 2012 scenes are alluding to some big event that happens at some point, it will just make what has been a nearly perfect show that much better.
It seems we are truly living in the McConaissance. You should all bear witness.