Contains some details that you might prefer not to know before watching the series, although we’ve tried to avoid overt spoilers as best we can.
There was no doubting what the TV event of the year was early in 2014: hardened critics and general audiences alike couldn’t stop talking about HBO’s new miniseries True Detective, and it’s one of the very few times that I’ve been so incredibly frustrated not to have the right TV provider to allow me to join in and watch the show as it aired. You can be assured that when the first season was released on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this month, I was right there on the first day with my hand out and my wallet open.
There is an aspect to this which is best summed up by “manage your expectations” because I had let mine run wild in the intervening months. When I finally got to watch the much-vaunted show, it couldn’t live up to the inflated opinion I’d formed of it in the meantime: the show is undoubtedly very strong and has moments of genuine brilliance, but it’s not the second coming of the TV drama messiah that the word of mouth had built it up to be. It’s a four- rather than five-star series in other words; which is still pretty darn good of course.
The first thing to understand about True Detective is that it’s not really a show about cops and killers, but is instead an intimate character study centring on Rustin Cohle and Martin Harte, two very different men who just happen to be partners working for the Louisiana state police. Almost everything else in the show is simply in support of this incredibly nuanced and deep analysis of the two personalities and their relationship both on and off the job, and as long as series creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto keeps the focus on these two then the show actually does come very close indeed to delivering on the hype.
That’s partly thanks to the writing of course, but also the execution. If you’d been looking for top movie star acting talent to inhabit the two roles then you might not have automatically thought of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the former in particular having been stuck in an endless parade of ‘beefcake’ and romcom roles (at least until his Oscar-winning performance in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club.) Yet in fact it’s McConaughey who initially truly dazzles here in the compelling role of Cohle, the eccentric but brilliant detective who sees patterns no one else can but who is alienated from everyone around him because of his nihilistic, depressive and potentially suicidal personality that puts him at odds with Harte who is much more of a normal ‘good ol’ boy’ Christian family man, one who is happy to be just one of the guys down at the bar decompressing after a day’s work.
Much has been made of Cohle’s lengthy discourses on Nietzschean philosophy, which I grant you is certainly not the sort of thing you expect from a typical US cop show. It’s usually to the intense discomfort and confusion of Harte: a great exchange has Cohle refer to humans as ‘sentient meat’ and Harte respond with ‘What’s scented meat?’ In truth, Cohle’s soliloquies on these matters come off as surprisingly superficial, not unlike a college grad student who thinks he’s incredibly deep and profound because he’s just finished reading Introductory Philosophy 101; but in fairness the script calls him on this with Harte pointing out that for all the long words there’s an undertone of desperation to what Cohle is saying. The importance of Nietzsche to the series is underlined by the strap line on the DVD/Blu-ray cover – “Touch Darkness And The Darkness Touches You Back” – which is as good a summation of the show’s overall direction as any.
It doesn’t take long before this initial veneer to the characters is scratched and penetrated over the eight hour-long instalments, with Harte soon also revealing a disturbingly controlling attitude to the woman around him and an ability to persuade himself that his extra-marital affairs are actually for the good of his family. As the show does on, Harrelson gets to spread his wings and his performance ends up entirely matching that of McConaughey. In turn, Harte’s family (especially Michelle Monaghan as wife Maggie) have a somewhat humanising effect on Cohle, but these aren’t nice straight linear paths and no one goes precisely where you expect them to. In the end, none of the characters you meet in True Detective are very all that nice, but equally the main players all have their redeeming qualities that means you end up forgiving them their trespasses and like them despite – maybe because of – their faults.
This study of Cohle and Harte is played out over three different time periods: in the first we see them as new partners who have just caught the case of a seemingly occult slaying of a young girl in 1995. In the second, in 2002, we see their partnership fall apart; and in the last, set in the present day (which for the purposes of the show is 2012) we see them meet up again for the first time in ten years, still haunted by what happened in that original case – and what they missed.
For many writers, this multiple timeline set-up would be an excuse of all kinds of head-scrambling non-linear time-wimey shenanigans, but to Pizzolatto’s credit that’s absolutely not the case here: it’s present purely and simply to allow a deeper exploration of Cohle and Harte’s psyches by extending the analysis over the frame of reference of time to see the consequences of actions and choices. Minor characters are also developed in the same way, such as the strutting evangelist preacher we meet in 1995 who is a shattered, faithless drunk in 2002. In particular, the most celebrated aspect of the show is how the present day versions of the two men are being interviewed by new detectives about the events of 1995 which allow them to comment on their own actions and personalities from a perspective nearly 20 years down the road. The show even makes good use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ in these sequences, as what we see of 1995 on screen (the factual truth) at times varies wildly with what the two men are saying in 2012. How and why these versions diverge is as illuminating if not more than any straightforward dramatic exchange could ever hope to be.
There’s a third main character in the show as well, and that’s the setting in and around southern Louisiana. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga really brings alive the setting in a vivid and visceral manner so that it’s hard not to feel suffocated by both the Deep South humidity and stifling social milieu clinging to the bayous. There are some stunning locations throughout, especially a fire-ravaged little parish church in the middle of nowhere. The highlight moments tend to be the quiet ones as Cohle and Harte drive the endless backroads, but Fukunaga also has a more in-your-face bravura moment at the end of episode four which involves a dazzlingly complex extended one-take in which Cohle tries to escape from a sudden gang war that’s broken out all around him.
So with all this wonderful material, why does the show fall short of my (admittedly absurdly high) expectations? Put simply, it’s the weakness of the underlying story of the case that obsesses Cohle and Harte. It seems to promise much with its hints of devil cult worship and a widespread conspiracy, but instead ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The early aspects that got viewers hooked – side references to ‘the Yellow King’ and ‘Carcossa’, borrowed by Pizzolatto from a little-remembered 1895 work of horror by Robert W Chambers – end up being barely more than minor dashes of extra Gothic colour largely irrelevant to the story, while the compellingly weird supernatural horror vibe that provides much of the series’ hypnotic dramatic power (and which makes it feel somewhat like an earnest modern updating of Twin Peaks) is ultimately frittered away and replaced by a disappointingly conventional Southern-fried redneck version of David Fincher’s Se7en.
Even before that, a certain unevenness of tone creeps into the show early on. After three hours of realistic painfully slow investigative dead ends which allow us to focus on Cohle and Harte, the fourth episode suddenly veers off into Sons of Anarchy/Breaking Bad territory with an all-action undercover operation that feels like it’s getting in the way of what’s really important. Some intriguing hints about Harte’s daughters are played up in the early episodes but then dropped without trace in the second half. And the show never recovers from the end of the 2012 interview sequences after which the show becomes a rather ordinary noir detective story, relying on an unconvincing stroke of luck and leap of imagination to allow the pair to finally get to the bottom of what happened nearly two decades earlier.
All of which suggests that Pizzolatto is incredibly strong at set-up, character and atmosphere but somewhat disinterested (or maybe just uninspired) in the mechanics of a detective plot – which is admittedly slightly unfortunate if you’re writing a show called True Detective. In the extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, Pizzolatto says that he didn’t want to create just another run of the mill serial killer story, but in essence that’s exactly what he has done despite cloaking it in all these other sensibilities along the way to distract and engross us. Ultimately it seems that the writer has perhaps drunk a little too much of his own Kool-Aid and succumbed to his own sense of profundity more than is entirely good for him.
Maybe we’re asking too much for the show to succeed on all levels simultaneously and just have to accept that if you’re primarily focussed on character and setting then something has to give plot-wise when you’re writing an eight-hour mini-series. However, it’s a big enough problem for me to downgrade my own feelings of the show to a still-impressive four stars rather than an all-time classic five. Your own mileage may well vary, but as far as I’m concerned it’s no Game of Thrones.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see where Pizzolatto takes the show next. He’s already said that McConaughey and Harrelson won’t be back (which is fine – their story is told, keeping them around would just straight-jacket a second season) and that the location will move to the more familiar California. However, given that these actors, their characters and the Louisiana setting are the strongest things about the first season, it does make me wonder whether Pizzolatto can pull off the same alchemy from scratch a second time. I’m slightly dubious but eager to see the result, and even if it doesn’t work then this first season will endure as a striking standalone miniseries well worth eight hours of anyone’s times.
Just don’t let the hype run ahead of you, that’s all.
True Detective is available on DVD and Blu-ray; extras include two audio commentaries, interviews with McConaughey, Harrelson, Pizzolatto and composer T Bone Burnett, a ten-minute making-of and two deleted/extended scenes. There are also five-minute featurettes for every episode in which Pizzolatto and Pizzolatto analyse and explain what happens in that instalment. True Detective is also currently being reshown on Sky Atlantic; the second series is expected to air on HBO early in 2015.