“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.”
We watched it, we discussed it, and most of us loved it, and now with the conclusion of season 1, True Detective has become HBO’s latest breakout success. Averaging about 10.9 million viewers across all HBO plays and platforms (and inciting a headline grabbing frustration when HBO GO crashed during the night of the finale), the show instantly found a following, and it’s easy to see why. An atmospheric southern gothic tale about unspeakable evil, True Detective is every bit a well-worn story, just expertly crafted and delivered in a way just unheard of for American television, even on a premium channel. The show’s first season is pretty spectacular, and it’s exactly the type of gritty horror show that HBO has been trying to air for years now….and it isn’t even a traditional horror show!
True Detective’s plot, a story of two very different anti-hero cops and a murder case that will envelop their lives for 17 years, follows a very logical yet still satisfying trajectory. Being interviewed by a younger pair of police officers, the show’s two older protagonists of Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson) recount their harrowing account on how they “solved” a mysterious murder back in the 1995, while also seeing the fallout the two have in their personal lives during the early 2000s. Eventually though, the narrative brings us to the show’s contemporary setting of 2012, as we see our two detectives finally reaching a conclusion over their long-gestating homicide case.
Throughout the show’s run, message boards erupted with theories as to what was coming. Many people seemed to think that their was a huge twist at the show’s end (could either Rust or Hart be the real murderer?), and some even expected that the show would take a turn into the supernatural. It’s certainly justifiable to think either of these things, as the show did have us bear witness to Cohle and Hart doing some pretty bad things, and the show had plenty of references to weird horror literature, most directly to Robert W. Chambers 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow. That said, neither of those two theories played out, with the identity of the killer hardly proving to be a shock, and the show didn’t have any overt fantastical elements to it. Throw in the fact that True Detective left many of it’s plot threads still lingering by it’s end, and one could make a case that True Detective ends on a bit of disappointing note. I admit, that I myself was a bit hesitant on giving the season finale any accolades at first, but looking back at it now, the whole series just felt so organic. Rather than being a gimmicky whodunit, True Detective played almost like an existential buddy-cop show instead, and one that really lucked out in the casting department.
Yes, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were mesmerizing in their roles, and their chemistry is the real binding for the show’s success. While initially it seems that Hart is the more level-headed of the two detectives as he isn’t spewing pessimism like Cohle is, we quickly discovered he is a very flawed man. He’s an adulterer and a violent hot-head, but we also get inside the character’s personal dilemmas and realize that their is real apathy in this man as well. Matthew McConaughey, an actor who is easily amidst the peak of his career right now, once again gives a fully committed portrayal of a complex lead character here, and it’s so fitting that the season’s finale aired a week after Matthew McConaughey scored his first Oscar win. It’s a decree to the man’s newly relegated position as one of Hollywood’s most elite, and here’s hoping that he’ll be placing an Emmy on his award shelf in about a year from now.
As I said in my review for the pilot, I had predicted that True Detective was going to feel like an eight-hour movie upon it’s completion, as every episode would feature Nic Pizzolatto as writer, and Cary Fukunaga as director. I can now say that the show absolutely felt like that, but I feel it was more due to Fukunaga’s contribution than for Pizzolatto. As consistent and talented a crime writer Nic Pizzolatto is, I feel that this season didn’t entirely escape the trappings of genre tropes, while Fukunaga’s film making was light-years ahead of what we’ve come to expect from the television milieu. He really did shoot the series like a horror film, and has even admitted David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as a crucial influence on the show’s development. What’s more, the show really did look like a film rather than a weekly television serial, due to it’s highly skilled camera work. Hell, the single take tracking shot in episode 4 will probably be discussed in film school classes for many generations to come. It’s understandable that Fukunaga has revealed he will not be returning to the show next season so that he may pursue other film projects, but I feel his presence shall be greatly missed.
So yes, True Detective’s debut season is really something special, and it’s the first new show since Justified to really understand noir storytelling. Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have given viewers a bleak, desolate and insidious world, that’s so rank that one can almost smell the cigarette smoke and booze. While HBO has yet to reveal whether they will order another season or not, giving the show’s fast success it seems like a sure-fire bet that they will. Pizzolatto has explained that True Detective is an anthology season, and that next season will feature an all new cast of characters, setting, and story. It is upsetting that Woodly Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and Cary Fukunaga will not be returning, but at least they’ve left an ideal blueprint for the series model during this riveting freshman year. True Detective may very well go down as this generation’s Twin Peaks.