Four words…just four simple words to describe how much I love this show. A joy to watch.
There’s something strangely familiar about True Detective. In many respects it reminds me of another show, called Millennium. Created by X-Files creator, Chris Carter and starring Lance Henriksen, the show (especially in it’s first season) explored the make up of serial killers leading up to the year 2000. It was dark and disturbing, going to a place where TV doesn’t often go. The show didn’t last but it certainly made its mark on those (like me) who remembers the show. Fast-forward from 1996 right up to the present day and it’s amazing how TV suddenly finds its mark again and re-invents itself.
True Detective (without a doubt) has been one of my TV highlights of the year and it stamps its authority right from the opening credits.
The opening credits set the tone of what to expect. Using footage from the entire series, it achieves a “double negative” visual effect. You could argue that the images are innocent and yet it suggests there’s more beneath the surface. That kind of transparency depends on how you view the credits. Every town has a dark underbelly is one argument my mind is drawn to. On the other hand, it could be how the characters see the world or view themselves (notice the lack of colour for example, exposing their secrets in their shades of grey). Whatever the reasoning, I found myself immediately hooked. The theme song is addictively haunting to the point where I can’t stop humming it (and yes the song is in my spotify playlist). It makes opening credits like True Blood look like amateur hour.
In essence, True Detective is not about gore but actual presence. The mood it creates is tense and unnerving. You can sense it without getting too deep. Light-hearted moments or jokes are sporadic and if you do end up laughing it’s more unintentional rather than a planned beat. The religious and spiritual undertones are at the forefront either used by characters to better themselves or used in a hypocritical way to justify their actions. Yes at times it can be uncomfortable but you can’t help but watch. It’s strangely hypnotic and because of this, it already distinguishes itself from the majority of cop shows that are on TV right now.
“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door” – Rust Cohle
Just like the show’s tagline, “man is the cruelest animal” – quoting Nietzsche in the process, True Detective is about that exploration. What drives someone to do bad things? Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew “alright alright alright” McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are entrusted with the task to track down a serial killer and to seek out that darkness.
In a unique way, this is not a straightforward storytelling. For Cohle and Hart, this investigation spans for 17 years, starting back in the mid 90s right up to 2012. Separately interrogated by officers, they both recount every moment (the good and the bad) about their investigation, how they met and their mannerisms (e.g. Hart calling Cohle “the taxman” because of the giant journal he would carry around to crime scenes), their encounters and their “version” of the truth on how they supposedly caught the killer first time around. All of this is seamlessly woven together in a combination of smart talking and flashbacks.
Episode 1 has it moments. You have a murdered dead body and a stick lattice that looked like the thing that was haunting the kids from The Blair Witch Project had found new business. It’s all very grim for a viewer, getting a taste of sadist cultism and rituals and the low depths of humanity people operate in. But just like Cohle (and the occasional monotone music cues) you are slowly drawn into that world.
To be honest I did found my attention dropping slightly during episodes 2 and 3. I’m not saying “nothing happened” but those episodes were clearly building up to something. It dangles bits of information here and there, picking up clues as we go along. We get a first real look at a suspect whilst at the same time building up the different viewpoints between our two leads. If anything, what this show rewards you with is patience because when episode 4 comes around, you have a game changer of epic proportions.
That tracking shot – oh my daze! I’ve seen my fair share of impressive tracking shots in both TV and films (e.g. The X-Files episode “Triangle” or Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas) but this one is the best I’ve ever seen. I’m deadly serious. THE BEST I’VE EVER SEEN. It was that good I re-watched the episode again later that same day.
It must have been a surreal experience with that level of planning and co-ordination. Watching that scene was like watching a life sized jigsaw puzzle coming to life with pieces not just fitting together but also evolving until the picture completely changes. Lasting around six minutes without edit it’s an impressive feat whilst maintaining the frantic drama. From that moment on, that energy is carried forward to the remaining episodes. As the mystery deepens every twist and turn is worthy of your attention. Without giving it away, the finale returns to that uncomfortable feeling from the first episode, this time with the culprit taunting in the shadows like a devil. The perspective switches from the familiarity of Hart and Cohle to the killer who started it all.
“Baby trust me – you don’t want to pick this man’s brain” – Marty Hart
Adding to True Detective’s appeal is the casting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Both actors bucking to the current trend of high profiled Hollywood actors staring on TV, giving them a new lease of life and exposure to a different kind of audience. It’s paid off massively because they are both outstanding.
Exploring this darkness Cohle and Hart and their contrasting styles couldn’t be more different. They are not the typical Hollywood team “couple” if you know what I mean – beautiful and attractive and somewhere down the line they will probably get together and make every fangirl punch the air with delight (yeah I’m still guilty of watching these shows 😦 ). Or shows where it’s supposedly set in a “typical” world and yet the cast still has bright white teeth or perfect hair. Cohle and Hart are not like that and never will be. Everything about them feels real. Their environment is real – nothing is dressed up or glamorized. They both look like were beaten with the ugly stick and survived, especially Cohle with his long hair and moustache, not really giving a damn about what people thought of him. Based on their tones and their time changing wardrobe, you know exactly where they’re coming from – whether you agree with their views or not.
Hart is what you would call a “by the book” person. He follows procedures, not really thinking outside the box per se. It’s fair to say he’s the sociable one, doesn’t mind having a drink and injecting humour in his stories. He has a wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) and two daughters.
On the surface he’s depicted as having the “perfect family”, believing so passionately on its values but in reality it’s not. He buries himself in work, often neglecting his family and the issues that come along with the territory. It’s fair to say he’s a hypocrite, using his “work time” to have an affair until the situation blows up in his face.
The thing about Hart is that he often lets his emotions get the best of him. He wants things to be a certain way, hence the idea of family being “peace” and “calm” – things that serve him rather than the unit. I think at times he tries to have a high moral stance by asserting his authority on others. However if he doesn’t get want he wants (e.g. when he suspects his regular girl was sleeping around with another guy), he reacts and often lashes out without thinking or to insert some territorial boundary. It either jeopardises the investigation or his family life.
Cohle on the other hand is the complete opposite. Intense is probably the word I would use to sum him up. Everything he does is done with precise measure and accuracy. He carries around a journal that is full of sketches, notes, diagrams – anything that will remind him of the clues and evidence. Unlike Hart, he’s willing to go to those dark places, either using psychology to interpret the facts, do drugs to fit in with a motorcycle gang, or sit back and study the world without any rules or restriction. He sees the world in a different light like he can see the truths that surround people or buildings and is happy to expose the hypocrisy where he see fits like the fundamentals of religion or the concept of the “locked room” of your mind. He even mentions that he has visions – not in the supernatural kind but it’s a feeling where he can completely lose himself. Because of this persona and his straight talking views, it leaves him isolated and unsociable, fearing he might be judged as his mind is forced judge others.
Not everything about Cohle is about darkness – that would be a simplistic answer for a character searching for light. His thoughts and his interpretations stem from personal circumstances that have shaped his beliefs. He talks about his daughter and his failed marriages. He comes off like a misunderstood, tortured soul and only certain people (whether it’s Marty or Marty’s wife, Maggie) are willing to engage with him. Give Cohle his due, he can see the bigger picture – he’s tenacious, unwilling to let things go and he doesn’t stop until the answer is clear for everyone to see.
The best thing about Cohle is his mannerisms or his Cohle-isms if I want to coin a phrase! As he’s cutting up stick men out of beer cans, he would often recite a soliloquy of some sort. Some of it is bonkers but if you need further proof of McConaughey’s acting skills, just watch all eight episodes. All your doubts will be taken care of because it’s a captivating watch. No doubt he will be nominated for a Golden Globe or an Emmy come the next award season.
Because of their contrasting styles it’s led to tension and confrontation both professionally and personally. As they search in the darkness for the serial killer, their own demons are exposed, like someone finally lifting the lid on an illusionist’s trick. The lies and the masks they hide behind constantly tests them and they often make questionable decisions that impact their investigation. Peace or their true mask is only attainable once they’ve confronted it. It’s not a conventional partnership and it does have its ups and downs, but it’s a partnership that works.
All in all, True Detective is not just a great TV drama. When you look beyond the surface, it’s also a great character study.
This whole entire series is worthy of my highest recommendation. Some may say the show lacks urgency but through its patient build up of events, the payoff is rewarding. Season 2 and its direction will be interesting – new cast, new case and new flow. Without putting pressure, True Detective has now set a standard and in the coming months, I’ll be looking forward to hearing further news on its development.
In the meantime, I’m going back to watch the impressive first season again.
*Goes off to hum the theme song…*