Welcome to a new, semi-regular feature where I look back on some of my personal favorite bits of pop culture. With just under a month to go before its second season, our first revisit is True Detective’s exemplary first season, which originally aired from January to March 2014 on HBO.
The first season follows two Louisiana state police detectives, partners Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as they investigate a grisly murder with occult underpinnings that will live with them for years. The narrative unspools nonlinearly as the two give separate interviews to two new detectives in 2012, detailing their original investigation in 1995 and casting doubt on whether the killer was truly caught.
- 1.1: The Long Bright Dark
- 1.2: Seeing Things
- 1.3: The Locked Room
- 1.4: Who Goes There?
- 1.5: The Secret Fate of All Life
- 1.6: Haunted Houses
- 1.7: After You’ve Gone
- 1.8: Form and Void
At eight serialized episodes, each is concise and adds something to the mix. It exploits the miniseries (also known by many names nowadays: limited, event, anthology etc.) format to full effect – one director, one writer, two stars. It’s a beautiful synthesis that forms a show unique in the landscape of television because of its clarity of vision, in front of and behind the camera.
With the advent of binge-watching on streaming services like Netflix, more “seasons” are described as 8, 12 or 13-hour movies, unbound by the traditional restrictions of broadcast or even cable like commercial breaks and time limits.
The best stories are always deceptively simple (have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet? You should) and then layered with textures and themes. There’s a subtle brilliance in using ideological nihilism and pessimism as ways to make the tone eerily Lovecraftian. It made me wonder why no one had bothered to make a cosmic horror cult on a detective show before. It’s a great example of extrapolating from the characters to make villains that reflect the existential despair they feel on a constant basis.
More importantly, it is appropriately sold as truth and is never more-or-less ridiculous than intended. In lesser hands, the philosophical ramblings of Rust Cohle would be annoying and pedantic but McConaughey uses his trademark sun-baked charm and coats it in weariness, cynicism and regret, giving our Cohle a real pathos meshed with his cerebral wackiness.
Director Cary Fukunaga and writer Nic Pizzolatto knock it out of the park. The unity of their creative pairing comes across on screen and, outside of the leads’ chemistry, is perhaps the single best feature of the series. With talk of healthy creative friction behind the scenes, I wonder how much of Hart/Cohle’s adversarial friendship was refracted from the relationship between the show’s creative forces? The fact that Fukunaga won’t be back to direct this coming season is one of the question marks surrounding the sophomore run.
Fukunga frames beautiful scenes, avoiding the hyper-kinetic camerawork of the mid-to-late 00s and allowing the landscape to become a character. The setting and Pizzolatto’s familiarity with it (he was born and raised in the area) add authentic atmosphere. Shots of bogs, post-Katrina damage, and scorched churches create uneasiness within the show. He will frequently refuse to cut which keeps the tension thick whether its a gunfight or an awkward dinner, and mixes modern aesthetics with old-school pans and long-shots.
Pizzolatto, I find inspiring as a writer; he was a novelist working as a college professor who loved the late 90s/early 00s HBO prestige dramas and wanted to be a “David” – Chase, Milch, Simon etc. He asked his agent the best way to get into the business. The agent said, “Write scripts.” He produced six in short order, one of them being the pilot of True Detective (It was originally conceived as a novel). McConaughey, in the midst of his McConaissance and looking for diverse projects, was offered the Marty Hart role, but instead asked to play Cohle. Once he came on, Harrelson followed, HBO picked it up and the rest is history. Talk about a dream ascendance.
McConaughey and Harrelson’s real-life friendship is a huge boon. The show is essentially a two-hander between them, so a lot is asked for them to carry and make relatable and they pull it off. McConaughey in particular is given the showier role, with flowery monologues about time as a flat circle and off-hand remarks like “This place reminds me a dream that’s fading.” Their partnership pretty much is the show, which led to problems that its lack of a strong female presence – outside Michelle Monaghan as the put-upon wife of Marty – was perpetrating misogyny or sexism.
It’s a fair assessment. I’d argue it is so aggressive with its exploration of masculinity that it is downright alienating to some female audiences. Pizzolatto at the time argued on Twitter that it was a result of the limited point-of-view story about two men and thus their specific attitudes, perceptions, and problems. It’s interesting to compare this series – which so brazenly combined basic procedural elements with filmmaking finesse and philosophical grandeur – to the other show that fits that description, Hannibal.
It’s not an original comparison. But it’s interesting to note where one show is an examination of masculine relationships by a straight writer with lines like “You have any idea what my wife’s pussy supposed to smell like?” in the other, one lead says to another “”I can’t get you out of my head.” Put another way, in one series, one of the two leads doesn’t ask the other a personal question for 17 years. In the other, the two leads communicate almost exclusively through therapy. Last example:
See the difference?
Oners have become de-rigeur in films as a way to show-off but before Birdman won an Oscar for it (among other reasons, presumably), True Detective delivered an amazing one, a 6-minute shot through an ethnic neighborhood that had just been invaded by insane, drug-addled, bearded bikers poorly disguised as cops to steal further drugs. This goes about as well as you’d expect. The choreography is impressive on the same plane as the show – it’s naturalistic and expertly shot. It fits in rather than feeling like a gimmick. Check it out in all its glory below.
Like the story, the ending is simple and much of the overwrought investigating of the show’s own “true detectives” delved into theories, some more admittedly interesting than what the show committed to. But, again, this is a show written by a professor of the art. While his work will probably run the risk of sounding pedantic or mechanical in the future, he understands the functionality and execution of language and story to a tee. The focus remains steadfast on our two protagonists.
I liked the ending but here we perhaps see the cracks in Pizzolatto’s writer-armor: hie desire to change the characters and fundamentally change their outlooks doesn’t come off entirely tonally consistent. There was almost no hope, nothing but brokenness prior to that moment. Now, like I said, I liked the ending and respect Pizzolatto for what he was doing.
But perhaps a bit more hope, a bit more of a fight against the darkness? Even in the detectives quest to take down the Yellow King, they accept the perhaps-mortal consequences of such a task (i.e. Marty visiting Maggie, Rust referring to “tying off” his life).
Pizzolatto discussed an alternate ending he considered, and it is the one that lines up with the world, tone, and theme he was building during the prior seven episodes. In it, they still kill Errol Childress, but Cohle and Hart disappear in Carcosa and are never found again. That is bold and keeps with the disturbing bleakness that I would argue entranced viewers to begin with.
But Pizzolatto decided that was not the story he was telling. The story does allow for change, hope and transformation. Hell, the aggressively-atheistic Cohle does a 180 and relates his near-death experience meeting with his daughter and father. There are ways to interpret that that aren’t religious, but the fact remains: Cohle ends his time on the show a profoundly different person, still pontificating, but this time about allegories, good and evil, and light winning over darkness.
Going back to the simpleness of the story, there’s also a renewed question of whether that means a bait-and-switch occurred. In some way, did Pizzolatto write a simple story steeped in philosophical ideas and moral grayness only to, in the end, become TOO simple, by making the villain a crazed, disfigured, incestuous, filthy Southern redneck and the leads unambiguously heroic by the end? Did he betray the foundation upon which he built – and gained – huge interest?
That’s all up for the viewer. For me, it worked then and, upon this Revisit, it works now. It’s not that the change is unearned, it’s that it changes the context of the prior seven episodes. And, whether I personally like the change or not, that is good storytelling to the core. The creators chose an emotional resolve instead of philosophical ellipses.
Those were my thoughts on my second go-round to the hauntingly-shot bayous of southern Louisiana. With Pizzolatto’s recent reveal that the new season has dropped its occult aspects, it disappoints me that we might miss out on the ethereal eeriness that made these eight episodes so utterly unique. But, with more characters and more viewpoints, it raises the hope that he explores a much more diverse world in Season 2 than in the hyper-limited male one we had here.
THE SUM OF ALL REELS:
True Detective‘s first season remains one of the most singular achievements of the Golden Age of Television – a triumph of creative vision, authorial control, and the strengths of television. It is also the best example of luring film stars to the small screen for limited commitments. While the show’s legacy will be determined by where it goes forward, because of its anthology format, it will not diminish the what was achieved with these eight episodes.
The new season, starring Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch in the lead roles, returns in the Game of Thrones time slot once that show wraps mid-June. The first episode of the second season airs Sunday, June 21 at 9 p.m. EST.
Again written by Pizzolatto, Justin Lin (director of four Fast & Furious films, the upcoming Star Trek Beyond) directs the first two episodes. Fukunaga remains an executive producer.