For me, television has always been about finding the next great story, a story that couldn’t fit into the two-to-three hour confines of a film and was just too cinematic to be held back against a page. Shows like Game of Thrones showed me how jaw-dropping television series could be given film-level budgets and production values, and how excellent an adaptation of an epic book series could be given the room to breathe that seasons of television allow. Meanwhile, the likes of Breaking Bad showed me just how powerful the medium could be in the hands of a masterful bard, weaving his vision out of stark cinematography and strong symbolism. And of course, both of these shows, and more, showed me what could happen when brilliant actors were allowed hours of screen time to flex and showcase their superb talent. We are indeed in a golden age of television, and with more and more Hollywood film talent gravitating toward the medium, it would seem that we haven’t seen anything yet. So what happens when you combine some of that Hollywood talent, including a leading man on a warpath effort to redefine his career, with the likes of a relatively unknown novelist and former literature professor, and a fresh director with only two films under his belt? The strongest HBO effort since Game of Thrones, a breakout television hit, and easily the best show currently airing.
True Detective tells two parallel stories: an investigation into a murder with occult underpinnings in 1995, and a modern day consultation with the two detectives who worked that murder.
The two detectives in question are Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Martin “Marty” Hart. Hart and Cohle, no longer working for the police and 10 years estranged from one another, are being separately interviewed as part of a consultation by two detectives investigating a murder similar to the one Cohle and Hart investigated back in 1995. The 1995 story is narrated by each of the two, and involves their hunt for the person responsible for the ritualistic murder of a prostitute named Dora Lange in the backwoods of Louisiana. Saying much beyond this would be a disservice to the show’s dark and intriguing plot.
Much of True Detective’s success lies squarely on the shoulders of Matthew McConaughey. Hot off of what many would say is one of the best Hollywood comebacks in recent memory, McConaughey is the current Hollywood it-man and his hotstreak continues in True Detective, where he brings the intelligent, damaged character of Cohle to life. In a show that could be considered primarily a character study, Cohle represents one of the most downright interesting characters I have had the pleasure to watch. McConaughey immerses himself in the role, perfectly selling Cohle’s pessimistic persona while simultaneously portraying a man struggling with a score of demons with aplomb. Even while waxing Cohle’s existentialist monologues, McConaughey is rapturous; he simply commands the screen in a way that I haven’t seen since Bryan Cranston’s heavily lauded turn as Walter White in Breaking Bad. On top of that, McConaughey essentially plays two roles, as the modern day version of Cohle has seemingly given into some of those demons and is, in some ways, a completely different character. Truly, True Detective is worth watching for his performance alone. It may be too early to name him a Lead Actor Emmy-winner, but he has certainly set the bar incredibly high.
Not to be outshone by his costar is Woody Harrelson in the role of Hart. Harrelson’s character has his own fair share of issues, with his family life constantly in the crosshairs of his own destructive habits. Whereas Cohle at least knows what kind of person he is, Hart is constantly in denial, thinking of himself as a better man than he is. However, there are subtleties in Harrelson’s performance: a look of disgust as he turns around after bragging to some co-workers, constant fiddling with his now-empty ring finger in the modern day scenes, and a powerful id that he is constantly, sometimes visibly, fighting. Even while he makes excuses for so many of his actions, the looks of regret on his face, his body language, and his eyes tell a completely different story, and this all comes down to an incredibly nuanced performance by Harrelson. While McConaughey has the more attention-grabbing lines, Harrelson is indeed quietly brilliant in the role of straight(er) man Hart.
While the show focuses primarily on its two male leads, supporting players do get their occasional moment to shine. Michelle Monaghan, playing Hart’s increasingly agitated wife Maggie, holds her own against the two powerhouse performances from McConaughey and Harrelson. Meanwhile, Alexandra Daddario has a small but significant role as Hart’s mistress, Lisa Tragnetti. Finally, Michael Potts and Tory Kittles conduct themselves well as the modern day detectives interviewing Hart and Cohle, slowly poking and prodding at the protagonists while simultaneously holding their own agenda close to their vests.
McConaughey and Harrelson’s performances would not be nearly as effective if the characters they were cast as were poorly written, and if it’s one thing True Detective has proven to me, it is that is has a truly visionary creator/writer/showrunner in Nic Pizzolatto. A complete unknown, Pizzolatto is a former professor with a number of short stories and one well-reviewed-but-poorly-selling novel. When pitching True Detective to HBO, Pizzolatto grit his teeth and took his chance: he demanded complete creative control as the sole writer and showrunner of the series. I can only imagine that HBO was so impressed with his idea for the show that they quickly capitulated. Besides writing two brilliant lead characters, Pizzolatto has also written a dark, brooding murder mystery that is equal parts creepy and labyrinthine. His writing hearkens to great Fincher films like Se7en and Zodiac, while having its own distinct, creative spin. Watching this show takes me back to my days spent in the crime fiction and mystery sections of my local library, and that is some high praise because I simply cannot remember being this engrossed in a mystery story since back then. When you consider Pizzolatto’s planned anthology format for this show, in which each season has its own set of characters, its own story, and its own location, then you can imagine each season as its own standalone detective novel, with a beginning, middle, and end. That alone could represent a dramatic shift in the way television series are made, and hints that the incredibly high quality of writing seen in this first season could be maintained throughout the life of the show.
While the writing and performances are both brilliant, the trifecta would not be complete without sound direction. Cary Joji Fukunaga provides that in spades. The Louisiana that he brings to life is stark, empty, and, in the words of Cohle, “a fading memory.” Fukunaga’s direction provides the story with a third main character, with his vision of the tale’s location proving as irresistible as the characters and the mystery. Beyond this, there’s just an insane level of consistency from a series that has only one writer and one director, with his visual aesthetic compounding on itself to produce one of the best looking shows I’ve seen recently. Along with the visual and tonal consistency that comes from having a single director, Fukunaga also provides a few technical standouts to solidify his stamp on the show. The main one is a brilliant, six-minute long-take tracking shot in one of the episodes that echoes some of the best work from Alfonso Cuarón. In regards to the show’s look, perhaps much of Fukunaga’s visual aesthetic credit can also be shared with the show’s cinematography, which has proven beautiful time and again. Along with the brooding music, it can be said that True Detective is certainly excellent from a technical production standpoint.
In the end, however, not even this review does the show justice. In an effort to avoid spoilers, it is difficult for me to properly convey the brilliance that is True Detective. Pizzolatto’s writing is excellent, McConaughey and Harrelson are amazing, and Fukunaga’s direction is impeccable. A lot of my reviews focus on these aspects, the “holy trinity” of cinematic quality, if you will. True Detective knocks it out of the park on all fronts, and can stand alongside the best mystery/crime thriller films I have ever seen. And for some reason, so many people I know still haven’t seen it. I mean, with a tagline like “man is the cruelest animal,” how can you not be intrigued? Oh, and also, it’s this good and there are still two episodes left.