Feb 10, 2014

Channel Surfing: True Detective - "Who Goes There"

Left to right: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
When it comes to tense dramas, HBO is a channel synonymous with quality output. With their biggest hits being The Wire and The Sopranos, they explore underbellies of unpleasant societies in exciting new ways. In a large sense, True Detective follows in the same mold. It is as corrupt as its HBO counterparts, but it also has a higher calling when it comes to narrative and innovation. No, it has yet to meet the audacity of either of these shows (It's only four episodes deep, after all), but it does make a promising new business model that could be sustainable in the right hands. 
The model is simple: one season, one story. Shows such as American Horror Story have played with this concept to less critical acclaim. However, True Detective has already been considered a cinematic renaissance in ways that recall the heyday of Breaking Bad. It is as much about the visual style as it is the acting, and both compliment each other so well that it only throws the whole experience into bizarre chaos. An addictive, strange universe that we'll only see for eight episodes. There is no guarantee that we'll even have Detective Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) or Detective Hart (Woody Harrelson) after this season. It does feel like the narrative will wrap up nicely, or the show's equivalence to nice, anyways.
This comes from a generally disabling outline that only allows so much leeway with the space time continuum. True Detective revolves around former partners Cohle and Hart approximately 15 years after a murder case. They are being interviewed by other officers about something strange. Are they corrupt? A little bit. Do they hate each other? Most definitely. Yet they work together on a quest to solve a case involving a dead, naked woman with antlers sticking out of her head. It is a surreal start to the series that only gets stranger, specifically as the hostility between the detectives thicken and Cohle's cynical world view and drug habit begin to blur the line between reality and a fantasy world. It sounds like a David Lynch concept, but that is only to pay fleeting homage to surrealist filmmakers. It is gritty and grounded in some perverse realism that is full of dark conversations about mortality and how jaded murder cases make you.
One of the large proponents of the story's success is another element that is much like its outline: one definitive director: Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre). Along with an amazing title sequence, every episode has a Southern Gothic approach at its bleakest. The cinematography is morose and the increasingly weakened look of its main characters are all parts of the perks in making the show engrossing as it clinically solves the case and lets us in on what these cops did to deserve interrogation 15 years later. 
Unlike most stories, it isn't so much about the case that makes the series compelling. It does help that the show has also included a villain that wears underwear and a gas mask while wielding a machete, but it is the moments when Hart and Cohle are forced to deal with each other that the story thrives. Even if the case sounds severe, they hate each other's guts too much to really bond over anything. They have relationship problems and work out the case in unruly fashion. In a sense, the show is Low Winter Sun if it knew what it wanted to be. Also, this is the peak of McConaughey's impressive resurrection as a great actor with some of his most nuanced, brilliant performances week-to-week in his entire catalog.
But let us get to the episode that may define True Detective. In fact, if the series manages to top this episode, we are looking at one hell of a show. The episode currently holds 9.9 (out of 10) on IMDb and has been the talk on almost every blog. Many fans are even calling it as a rallying moment to get people to watch the show. Of course, that could largely be thanked to one scene that is one of the show's early highlights. It may even be one of TV's highlights not just for 2014, but possibly in the past decade. Even compared to the amazing Breaking Bad, that show never created a moment as intense and well shot as "that shot."

"That shot" is likely to be talk about, dissected, and even held to the same planes of greatness as the film Gravity. On top of an already impressive episode involving despair and misery, True Detective decided to do something different. The show had been known for its anticlimactic approach to narratives. Most episodes ended with compelling images, but never high octane moments that reflected any personal growth from the characters. Fukunaga has made the series very weird looking, but that is more atmospherically. In "that shot," he breaks the rules with what feels almost like his release. The moment feels like it came from a repressed feeling of going too long without a triumphant example of chaos.
Upon infiltrating the devious gang called the Iron Crusaders, Cohle befriends them and decides to take down a crack house in order to get some money and most importantly get sources that will lead him to the ultimate criminal. The build-up is excellent film making and shows the morose atmosphere that these characters inhabit. However, upon befriending the Iron Crusaders, Cohle decides to help take the crack house down only for things to go terribly wrong. Grabbing his friend of the group, Ginger, he manages to sneak out of the backyard and through a few neighborhoods while helicopters are flying and guns are going off. It is chaos and it doesn't end until they reach a car a few streets over being driven by Hart.
If that moment doesn't sound intense enough, consider the following. Watch the video (posted above) in which the moment becomes more tense just by the fact that it is all done in one take. Cohle tries to control the situation, which starts off according to plan. It slowly falls apart until someone is shot and Cohle makes his venture to freedom. All of this was done in one take, including the camera climbing over a fence and shooting varying houses in various moments of chaos. The tension is high because a lot is going on, but it is more amazing because it is claustrophobic and also continuous. There is a sense that the moment will break, but doesn't. 
Maybe it comes from being ill-advised to behind-the-scenes of film making. Scenes like this and some moments from Children of Men are beyond impressive largely because the camera's motion makes no sense. The director is so devious that he knows every step and doesn't show his seams. When a police car passes by Cohle and Ginger a few blocks over, I am impressed because of how it was timed. String that out over six minutes and with varying scenarios and you get essentially the essence of film making. This isn't even just to the ground of TV making. This is in general brilliant.
There are still four episodes of True Detective's first season to go. There's also hope that they didn't just blow their wad on "that shot." There needs to be more to the story. It may never look as flashy or haywire, but the series has built itself over being unexpected. "That shot" was nothing more than a celebration of what the show could do. As it stands, we still have an insane villain to capture and high tensions between Hart and Cohle. The show could drift on that material alone. It is strong and has everyone working on some of their best levels. As it stands, I would expect Fukunaga to have an impressive career after this. He very well earned it by creating something along the lines of Top of the Lake that mixes drama with style and condenses it to its core brilliance.

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