To listen to fanboys, this is the best show on television now, and possibly the… Best. Show. Ever. I seldom recommend listening to fanboys, but in this instance they may have a point (though I suspect their reasons and mine for this assessment differ).
Since I started watching the first season of True Detective, HBO’s Gothic, southern police drama, I’ve been struggling with its placement in the pantheon of great television shows. It’s definitely near the top, but is it better than The Wire or Breaking Bad or The Sopranos? Where does it rank?
Perhaps that kind of game is futile, but the show is impressive enough that it should be in the conversation.
I’ve long contended that television shows such as True Detective have by far stronger writing and meaning than anything you will see in the mainstream cinema. In decades past, it’s possible you would have seen a movie like True Detective (reduced in length of course) on the big screen. But not today. Form and content, blended as it is in True Detective, is not something Hollywood movies can deliver as reliably.
The show teams two detectives, Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) in bayou Louisiana, who are tasked with investigating a ritualistic-style killing in 1995. This may seem plain and standard at first, but the show takes a different entry point into this kind of story than we have seen before.
The show begins in the present day where an older Cohle and Hart are being interviewed about their involvement in the 1995 case. Similar killings have started again, and it’s not clear if the original suspects were actually responsible. The first few episodes bounce back and forth between the present and 1995, detailing how the case unfolded.
But this is all –to use a local phrase—picayune. The interviews are used to plumb the thoughts and feelings of Hart and Cohle (not by the interviewers so much but by the show’s writers). Hart is a bit of a clichéd cop. He drinks and cheats on his wife. He skirts procedures and is a big mess. But it’s Cohle who is the real object of fascination. In the present, he appears wildly different than his 1995 persona. He waxes about life and death and time and metaphysics. He’s creepy in his own right and is the classic tainted, dark detective. Like Orpheus and Dante and Phillip Marlowe and Sonny Crocket, he understands crime and the criminal mind because he’s been to the dark side, to the underworld. Cohle is this archetype taken to the next level.
Indeed, though I liked the interview structure, it often felt like Cohle and Hart were hard to believe as front line, criminal investigation cops. Their self-awareness, self-loathing, and self-expression often rang falsely. Is this really how cops talk about themselves and life?
Still, because the performances (McConaughey especially) are so good, reservations about verisimilitude or lack thereof can be placed aside.
It was a strong choice to leave the interview structure mid-way through the series, for it was growing a bit tiresome. It had a novelistic or stage-play feel at times, and though it didn’t bother me all that much I can see this posture as distracting to some. After the first two episodes, I wanted to get more involved with the case, and it grew weary to watch the characters continue to talk about each other in ways that felt artificial.
But just when you feel a moment or two of drag, the writers whisk us into the biker/cartel/gangbanger underworld for a shootout as Cohle and Hart pursue leads. Plot and character are artfully balanced, and this does not even mention the visual style of the show.
Mise en scene is an area in which television has also caught up to the cinema. TV can never fully match a film in terms of cinematography, editing, and sound. Our relationship with the big screen is of a wholly different order, but the small screen has made great strides and this is on full display in True Detective.
Southern Louisiana has immense natural beauty. Water and reeds and swamp and long, flat stretches of land offer a pleasing and pretty backdrop for the series, which are juxtaposed against the stifling lives of the characters (not to mention the horrible nature of the crimes). For every beautiful vista, there is an almost nauseating scene of smoking or drinking or snorting, and there’s enough sultriness and sex to make even Tennessee Williams blush.
There is little wealth or the trappings of it in this series. Indeed, some may label this show as poverty porn (as was an allegation leveled at the movie Winter’s Bone). From ramshackle houses to meth dens to honky tonk joints, there’s not much that is flattering about the Pelican State.
I’m curious to know how Louisiana residents feel about the way their backyard is depicted. Evangelical Christianity is not treated too kindly, and law enforcement is pictured as a knotted ball of corruption. I know Louisiana has a history of problems in this regard, but overall there seem to be few virtuous figures in this world.
If I had one overarching criticism of the series, it might be the effort to impose a pulp world of crime, corruption, and decadence on the 21st century. 24/7 news, social media, and a thirst for scandal in our national culture would make, at least in my eyes, it impossible for what this show depicts to be anywhere close to reality. A child goes missing and Greta Van Sustren talks about it for weeks. Yet in True Detective, it’s possible that a large group of people have been carrying out Voudon-Santeria-Christian influenced murders for decades and no one is really the wiser to it? This ain’t Huey Long’s Louisiana or Fellini’s Satyricon…
Which leads me to the second beat of the series—that is the events of the year 2002. After seemingly solving the case in 1995, Detective Cohle, in 2002, believes they may have gotten the wrong men. More tortured and obsessive than Hamlet, he begins to open old wounds. It is too much for his bosses and his partner, and he leaves the force and the State.
He returns in the present when the murders start happening again. This leads police to think Cohle may be the culprit, and this is the reason for the interviews of him and Marty Hart. Hart is now divorced and a private investigator (can you say Sam Spade?). He has not spoken to Cohle since 2002, but the recent events force them back together to solve the case once and for all.
I will offer no spoilers, but the ending is at once brilliant and frustrating. It’s frustrating because it doesn’t make much sense in a mundane way, but it’s clear to me that the facts of the case are not important at all by the series’ conclusion.
The first image offered in the entire series is two men limping through some reeds. It’s dark, and we cannot see them. The final image of the show is Hart helping a wounded Cohle in the parking lot of a hospital. Cohle has solved the case but he opts to disappear rather than rejoin conventional society. Whereas before the limping men could not be seen, they are now revealed by the flood lights of the parking lot. Light has won out over darkness in Cohle’s tortured soul, and he admits as much.
In some ways, True Detective can be understood not at all as a police show, but as a metaphor for the struggle within Cohle (and in a larger context, all of humanity). His character at the beginning of the series doubts. He lacks hope and believes Man’s existence has no meaning. He’s a pessimist. But by the conclusion (the final episode is titled “Form and Void”), Cohle believes. He has faith. He’s chosen substance over nothingness—form over void. There’s a reason we need to confront and defeat evil. If God does not exist, we might capitulate to evil or even join it, but as Cohle tells us “we always make a choice.” And so he has chosen light and faith; he is redeemed.
Seen in this way, it does not matter who the killer was or if everything adds up. The earthly machinations of a crime investigation are small compared to the ontological discoveries made by Cohle—and through his vessel, all of us.
It’s unclear if True Detective will continue as a series. What do I mean by that since season two has already been announced? The rumors are season two will be with different actors and a different story line, which would really mean a different show. It will still possess the title True Detective, but it will essentially be true (ha ha) to the homage it offers for pulp magazines of the past, which would, each week or month, feature a macabre tale of horror or violence.
Whether season two will live up to season one is uncertain, but this will forever preserve season one’s greatness. The downfall of many dramatic and police series is that, as the seasons go on, the writers have to take the same characters in new directions. In some instances, they can’t do it any longer in ways that have credibility and things fall flat or start to seem silly and expedient. I felt that way about Breaking Bad, (here is my review of that series), which mid-way through the third season began to show the stress of teasing more out of the same characters and situations.
True Detective, at least as far as season one goes, does not succumb to the need for momentum based mainly on plot or surprising revelations. Naturally, there is a mysterious and lurid story line, but the show combines plot with the introspection and literary quality of southern writer Thomas Wolfe (the Look Homeward, Angel Thomas Wolfe) and H.P. Lovecraft gruesomeness.
In fact, I think the show title may be more than just a nod to pulp adventures. I think it might be meant to have a verbal or aural aspect to it, as when people say “he’s a true champion” or a “true winner.” True Detective is not just a procedural cop show or a physical journey to a dark place, it is a plumbing of the psyche, one which only a ‘true detective’ can penetrate. The stakes are greater than an individual crime. A man’s soul (and all of Mankind) is on the line. Martin Hart is not the man to bear this weight. He’s a good cop and smart investigator, but he is not the mystic that Rust Cohle is.
Cohle is portrayed as not just a superior police detective. He can read people like no other. He has extraordinary physical abilities, and he hallucinates. He is not man or deity, but demi-God—one foot in both worlds.
The final two episodes move away from this mysticism a bit as the extent of the criminality unfolds and the reunited Cohle and Hart get closer to the truth. Here we are in strict track-down-the-bad-guys mode, and the navel gazing ebbs.
But in the concluding episode, Cohle comes face to face with evil, which seems to have been waiting for him and even recognizes him. True Detective is reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood movie Tightrope, in which a New Orleans (setting a coincidence?) cop tracks a serial killer but finds he may not be unlike the evil which he is hunting. Similarly, in True Detective, it is only by confronting this evil head on (and I mean that literally) that Cohle can chase it not just from the realm of man but from the terrain of his mind.
True Detective is probably the television equivalent of The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, and in so being will go down as one of the greats. A string of Emmys should be forthcoming, and they will be well deserved. The fanboys will debate where the show’s placement on the top ten list should be, while the rest of us will simply admire its accomplishments.