True Detective - a talented team composes a distinctive drama

HBO provides a new, star-studded and literary twist to the crime procedural genre.

True Detective, a new addition to HBO’s Sunday night lineup, is unexpectedly ponderous yet sharply assembled, showcasing the formidable acting chops of its stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.

            When the pilot, titled “The Long Bright Dark,” begins, the year is 2012. We are introduced to (former?) Louisiana detectives Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey), who are each being interviewed on camera about a ritual murder they investigated together in 1995. We learn that they had a falling out ten years ago, and have not spoken since.

            Flashbacks return us to the murder scene, where a young blonde woman has been murdered and bound naked to a tree in a prayer position, with antlers tied to her head. Cohle, studying the body and drawing on knowledge presumably gleaned from the volumes of literature about psychology and murder we later see in his sparse apartment, concludes that this is not a one-off case. Rather, this is a ritual murder, and Cohle suspects that this is not the murderer’s first victim.

            Hart’s 2012 interview serves as a voiceover for this scene and others, as he reflects of Cohle’s unusual methods and personality. The pair is mismatched: Hart, the family man with a classic, grounded southern temperament; and Cohle, the philosophical, focused and affected alcoholic. The dissonance is darkly comic, led by Nic Pizzolatto’s literate and calculated dialogue and executed by two of the greatest American character actors of our time. But the spectre of their future quarrel throws a sinister pall over the narrative. The question is less “who killed the girl?” and more “what happened over the course of these 17 years?”


The pilot episode felt a bit like wading into cold water. Knowing nothing about this show before watching except that it was about Louisiana detectives played by Harrelson and McConaughey, I stepped in expecting something more welcoming. These actors are known to be close friends in real life, and for some reason that led me to believe that their pairing would be good-natured and comical - a whimsical, haphazard matching of cops with different styles investigating a murder. A dark comedy, sure, but with more comedy than darkness.

When the episode began, and Pizzolatto’s heavy dialogue filled the room with tension, I felt a little lost. Pizzolatto was a literary guy first, and is fairly new to television. Dennis Lehane at the New York Times praised Pizzolatto’s empathy for his characters in a 2010 review of his novel, “Galveston,” and we can see the trappings of a great character builder in this, his first foray into physically realizing his creations.

Though the script felt a bit overwrought and pulpy at first (unaided, of course, by the Louisiana setting, the long intro sequence, and the first half of its name, which practically demands comparison to True Blood), it seemed to tighten up toward the end. Maybe it was the script, or maybe it was me just getting my bearings, but by the episode’s conclusion the intrigue was impossible to ignore.

Also impossible to ignore are the parallels between True Detective and David Lynch’s early ‘90s cult favorite, Twin Peaks. Lynch’s series is often looked to as the first ambitious attempt by a television showrunner to capture the cinematic aesthetic of film and translate it for television viewers. Though Pizzolatto claims to reject typical tropes, he follows the example of a fellow self-styled innovator almost to the letter.

First of all, we have a mysterious murder of a young woman in a small town, and a team of mismatched detectives tasked with solving it. One is a straightforward everyman. Harry S. Truman, anyone? The other is quirky and investigates by intuition. Rust Cohle, meet Special Agent Dale Cooper. And when the sketch of the “green eared spaghetti monster” was shown, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “BOB!”

Also, Pizzolatto’s privileging of characterization over the main storyline is similar to Lynch’s sometimes sprawling exploration of his characters’ dark and quirky sides. I can only hope that Pizzolatto’s commitment to a complete story arc will lead to a satisfying ending, and not a solved murder followed by a lot of bizarre treading of water.

The involvement of producer Steve Golin bodes well for this show and its green-but-gifted writer/creator. Throughout his diverse career, Golin has produced a number of great music videos, advertising spots (BMW’s famed “The Hire”), and several award-winning films, including Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel.The show’s director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) is also a great addition to the team.

The best thing about this show is that it is an anthology series. That is, after eight episodes, we will move on to a new story, complete with new characters and maybe even a new setting. Pizzolatto has said that it will always be a detective story, but that the crime to be solved won’t necessarily follow any theme or pattern. Whereas most police procedurals follow a formulaic arc in each singular episode - perhaps threading some loose, overarching but ultimately inconsequential storylines throughout a season or two - this detective drama takes a new, conclusive approach.


I enjoy a third act and I like stories with ending. A lot of my frustration with serialized storytelling is a lot of shows don't have a third act. They have an endless second act, and then they find out it's their last year and often have to hustle to invest a third act, but they were never necessarily organically meaning to to begin with. So I wanted to tell something with a complete story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.


As a fan of things that end, for exactly the reasons outlined above, I’m looking forward to seeing this team tackle a number of different storylines with (hopefully) equally talented teams of A-list actors. It’s great to see two of my favorite actors from The Wire back on the screen: Michael Potts (Brother Mouzone) as Det. Maynard Gilbough and Clarke Peters (Lester Freeman) as the minister. Hopefully, commitment of only eight episodes will allow more Hollywood favorites like Harrelson and McConaughey to take a jaunt on the small screen.

At this point, I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Who killed the prostitute? Where is Marie Fontenot? What’s with that Blair Witch-y twig thing that they keep finding? Why does Cohle look like such a disheveled mess in 2012? What happened in 2002?

Episode 2 airs Sunday at 9:00 pm. 



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