Mar 10, 2014

TV Retrospective: True Detective - Season 1

Left to right: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson
There is something fascinating about the TV landscape that has developed over the past decade. While the major networks still hold strong to their seasonal September through June programming, the taboo surrounding deviant models has become embraced. January is no longer a wasteland for sub-par TV shows to ride out a mid-season replacement. In fact, it has allowed riskier shows to hit the market and set the bar for the next 12 months. With that said, HBO's freshman drama True Detective may very well have set the bar too high for the remaining 2014 output.
For the most part, HBO is a channel that banks on year-round variations to programming with boundary pushing shows that are unfit to be presented on any other network. Even the once enviable AMC output cannot compare to the cinematic quality that goes into a show that uses the familiar foreign model of limited runs. It is in this concept that creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto's True Detective came about with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Add in director Cary Fukunaga and the behemoth that in its eighth episode crashed HBO Go begins to form into the wonderful, strange show that brought along with it a fantastic cast, fans with numerous conspiracy theories, and a few choice quotes for the zeitgeist.
The other charm comes in its publicized format. Pizzolatto has always claimed that each season would be an individual story with new casts and plots. Mix in some psychedelic texture and this is somehow the grounded program that could do anything. There wasn't a certainty that its leads, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, would be back next year. In fact, it was decried by the actors. While American Horror Story has beaten True Detective to the individual story season, this show has some chutzpah when it comes to starting from scratch. It made everything leading up to the final episode "Form and Void" intense in ways reminiscent of Breaking Bad, which had over seven times as long to build a moment like this. In fact, the gamble would suggest that next season could be terrible. However, it has made TV exciting again.
At its core, True Detective is just a detective show about solving a murder. While it is a gruesome story based around a girl with antlers and the anonymous "Yellow King," it had much more behind it. The story begins with an interrogation of sorts from detectives Marty Hart (Harrelson) and the aloof, philosophical Rust Cohle (McConaughey) who in 2012 discuss the case that happened in 1995. The two never got along and would go on long drives in silence to avoid arguments. Somewhere along the way, they had a falling out around 2002 which only adds to the mystery. The show doesn't just discuss the murder, but also explores the obsessions and complications of these two men with radically different lifestyles as they put aside differences to do their job. In a sense, it is an epic, taking place over a 17 year span, only ending with enough satisfaction to make a breakthrough in character feel achieved,

It is an ending that has left many divided, but is nonetheless a profound conclusion. When the series is offered a chance to wrap itself up with all the corners wiped clean, it leaves the uncertainty that comes with real life. Nothing is ever truly solved and as Cohle once claimed, it is like a flat circle. These events will come back. Those wanting closure aren't likely to get it, at least in terms of the atypical murder mystery way. True Detective defied the trope and instead made the final moments about a breakthrough with Cohle that feels way more deserving. At very least, it makes the leads feel more human from the entire experience.
Of course, this all wouldn't be true without the fantastic performances, specifically by McConaughey and Harrelson. With distinct wardrobe changes, we see the evolution of Cohle and Hart as they evolve physically and mentally. Harrelson's concerned cynicism also brings a lot of dark humor to the subject as he insults Cohle for being too strange. Cohle is definitely someone who began as a wild card, with him almost feeling like a New Age prophet who saw fantastical visions and drank beer out of a Big Hug Mug. As the show progressed, the threat of him being a murderer and possibly even incompetent of solving the case all were brought into question. With McConaughey adding a lackadaisical approach that grew into concern, it is a phenomenal performance only complemented by Harrelson. Neither are slouches and bring enough dramatic and communicative tension to each episode, especially as it grows perverse.
Just as much as the show's cast is responsible for the success, a lot must be given to the ingenious concept of singular director Fukunaga. Directing every episode with Pizzolatto penning them as well, there was a sense of continuity that helped to establish tone. With eerie music playing over the closing credits, it all felt like a cryptic puzzle, which the writer claims is untrue. It is supposed to be a straightforward tale. However, the direction is far from straightforward, as Fukunaga earns his keep with impressive camera techniques, specifically in the famous ending to "Who Goes There," which features a long take so impressive that most movies haven't featured a shot nearly as impressive. With the murky south beautifully shot, often in sweeping shots, there was a beauty to the chaos and Fukunaga makes it an engrossing journey.
There is something to be said for making a story with an atypical murder into one of the most fascinating shows. With way more artistic credit than a noir-style story deserves, it was visually compelling while also having layers that evolved and fluctuated over time. While the conversation surrounding season one may die down, it isn't likely to be forgotten. If anything, it will be replaced with fascination with what season two will look like. It could be more popular, but how different will the story be?
Most of all, I wonder how this will impact the shifting way in which American TV is made. With this show, it follows the foreign series format and it paid off brilliantly with every piece aligned perfectly. There is confidence in the writing that suggests that longevity isn't as important as compactness when it comes to story. Every piece must feel economic, and True Detective has excelled at that. Even if this is the last that we're likely to see of Cohle and Hart, their story was fascinating in ways that started off 2014 right. Even if the series didn't move you, there is no doubt that it reshaped the way to perceive narrative TV. Hopefully we'll be getting more series from talented individuals in the years to come. If anything, this should be a calling card for those wanting to know why Fukunaga is brilliant and why this may be the best thing that McConaughey has been associated with. It was a gamble, but it paid off beautifully.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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