Thoughts on True Detective, Season One

It has been a while since I last posted a blog entry. I apologize for the delay, I know there are thousands of people eagerly awaiting my thoughts on movies, books, television, etc. However, in the interim I was in a movie, which was a new and exciting experience, so that’s all well and good.

That being said, HBO’s first season of True Detective has just finished and I feel like it is only appropriate that I say a few words. Created and written (entirely) by novelist Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective follows the story of Homicide Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McCounaghey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). Though Cohle and Hart are the focus of this season, Pizzolatto has stated that each season of True Detective will present a contained story, with different characters. Though many are disappointed about this, it makes sense considering how busy McCounaghey and Harrelson are with their respective film careers. To be honest, I was surprised that the series managed to get them signed on at all. However, I’m glad that they did as it once again proves that there has been a fundamental shift in how people think about television. No longer is it considered a lesser medium. Now, we live in a truly exciting time for television, where the stories and talent presented are just as good as the best of what we see in a theatre.

What McCounaghey and Harrelson bring to the proceedings elevates already brilliant material. Their performances are both nuanced, perfectly acted, and extremely memorable. In a nice bit of counter-casting, it is McCounaghey who plays the more eccentric of the two. Rust Cohle is the epitome of a nihilist when we first meet him. In the many car rides that pepper the season’s eight episode run, we see Rust philosophize in a droning monotone, expounding upon the meaningless nature of life, the fallacy of religious belief, and the ultimate futility of the fight in which he and Marty are involved. McCounaghey plays Cohle with a sort of wild stillness, a surface calm that hides the violence inside of an emotionally damaged man. Harrelson’s Marty Hart, conversely, is more of the straight character. A philandering husband and bad drunk, Marty struggles to come to terms with an inexplicable unhappiness. Despite this, he still maintains a positive, if somewhat simplistic and shallow view of life. The relationship between these two characters is the heart of the show and it is a fascinating thing to witness. Fundamentally opposed to the mindset of the other, Rust and Marty are at times friendly, then antagonistic, condescending, then respectful. It is a complex relationship, but one that is totally believable since they are drawn together by common purpose.

Structurally, the show is unique in that for the majority of the time it takes place in two time periods: the first begins in 1995, when Rust and Marty work on their first case together, the second takes place in 2012, ten years after an unexplained falling-out between the two. Both timelines are joined by a long-running case involving the ritualistic murders of women up and down the Louisiana bayou. The mystery itself is interesting and extremely unsettling. The show plays with the subject of cosmic horror, touching upon older literary works, especially those of writer Robert W. Chambers. Throughout, a certain sense of bleakness pervades, adding to a constant tension that makes each new development cause a mutual feeling of dread and excitement. I was entranced from beginning till end and I found the outcome of the mystery to be both logical and satisfying.

Overall, with True Detective, I think what we get is a perfect joining of three things: Pizzolatto’s writing, McCounaghey and Harrelson’s performances, and the cinematic atmosphere created by director Cary Fukunaga. A lot of the show’s success can be attributed to the consistency that is presented. Pizzolatto wrote every episode; Fukunaga directed every episode. There are no jarring stylistic changes that are seen quite frequently in other shows, nor the “too many cooks in the kitchen” writing problems that pop up in more commercial programming. It is clear a lot of money was poured into this production and it shows. The whole season feels like an extended film, with many impressive sequences including one jaw-dropping, 6-minute tracking shot in the finale of episode four that is sure to be placed alongside those of Alfonso Cuarón and Gaspar Noé. It’s a pulse-pounding, perfect piece of media, and one that I look forward to watching again. Functioning as both a technical victory and a showcase for some truly outstanding acting, the first season of True Detective is one of the best seasons of television I have ever seen. 

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