True Detective Season 1 Review

Beer Cans

A Television Review by Akash Singh


True Detective erupted onto HBO and became one of the greatest things ever, according to the popular discussion if nothing else. I ardently avoided it at its onset, if one could be perfectly honest. When Breaking Bad was in the midst of the third season, I suddenly began hearing of how this show on AMC was the greatest thing of all time. I gave it a quick shot and soon I was hooked. But it never grasped me the way “the greatest television show” ought to have. Season 3 I found to be a rather dull affair, heightened only by the occasional character complexity that was occasionally successful at matching the thinness of the plot on display. By the halfway mark of Season 4, the show had in my opinion recovered quite well. But with True Detective, I wanted to avoid jumping in with those supremely heightened expectations in the first place. At last I was sick and it was the winter holidays. I had no excuse not to watch beyond the pilot and for the sake of objectivity, I found myself turning on HBO and marathoning the whole thing. I kept myself at two episodes an evening and at the end of it all, I was quite pleasantly surprised. True Detective was not the best anthology or miniseries of the past year (The Honourable Woman, Fargo, and Olive Kitteridge were better) and it certainly was not good enough to beat Breaking Bad’s final season (half-season?). Creator Nic Pizzolatto nevertheless managed to imbue the series with a keen sense of ingenuity that for the most part pays off handsomely, buoyed significantly by the amazing performances of the leads and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s amazing direction. There are significant flaws, but for a show that rests its plot in the hands of one individual, it leaves on an incredibly assuring note.

To start off, True Detective may garner itself a reputation for boosting and or saving careers. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson give what may arguably be the performances of their careers here and the second season looks to do the same by casting actors who aren’t necessarily known for hardcore roles (Taylor Kitsch, Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams). One could co go far as saying that McConaughey’s Oscar for the overrated Dallas Buyers Club had True Detective written all over it. Indeed McConaughey is thrilling as the philosophical, cold Rust Cohle, whose emaciated frame perhaps only serves to reinforce the consistent emptiness he feels and embodies. There’s more to him than philosophical anger and he’s the character perhaps who is most well-served by the attention of the writers. His complexity is key to the series as a whole, the most delightful of sequences arising when McConaughey unveils one layer after another in seeming seamlessness. Woody Harrelson is equivalent here, even though McConaughey is the one who receives the meatiest material to work with. His Marty is far less capable of eliciting sympathy from the audience but Harrelson gives him enough depth to where he can surprisingly do so. Marty is in many ways an equivalently hurt man who consistently digs himself deeper and deeper into an abyss but realizing far too late that he broke the ladder. In perhaps the sweetest scene at the end, the difficult Rust is the only one there to give him a hand up, the most remarkable of friendships.

That saving grace of writing doesn’t largely extend to anyone else, however. The women this season especially get the short shift and none more so than Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart. Outside of a few honest scenes about a marriage in absolute turmoil (and even those arguably existed for the sake of Rust and Marty’s character development and not hers), Maggie was mostly used a plot device. She showed up when necessary, moved the plot along, and then sort of disappeared as if she had no agency and depth of her own. Most markedly that occurred when she became the driving force for the wedge between Rust and Marty, an archaic soap opera device that should have expired a while back but for some reason became the choice for that narrative fork in the road. This error in judgment extends significantly throughout the second half of the season, where Maggie almost becomes an afterthought. It’s a shame how little she got to do, considering how truly gifted Michelle Monaghan is as an actress. Her first appearance in the pilot was promising but as time went on, she faded consistently into the background like the alleged killer. She’s not alone, certainly, as the women in True Detective are either one-note or prostitutes. Or in some cases, they’re both.

True Detective thrives largely on atmosphere and its philosophical underpinnings on subjects as diverse as religion and conflict, venturing into the great question of existence through Rust. The Louisiana atmosphere and mythology are almost a character onto themselves, the mystic aura imbuing itself into every corner of the narrative. The narrative itself is quietly proficient at juggling multiple time frames for the first half of the season when the plot relating directly to the murders is kept at a back burner for the sake of character development. When the plot really begins to kick in and the murder spree has to be logically explained for the sake of the story’s conclusion, the weaknesses of the scrip begin to seep through. The atmospheric pressure (pun intended) and the character development was inherently necessary, but the explanations required for the plot to clip along came a tad bit too late, so towards the end the show felt bogged down by exposition that just seemed to be rushed. The finale rescued things, however, adding in a quiet understatement on the legitimacies of the justice system and how those in power can escape even the sharpest judgement. It provides some crucially critical subtext to the entire endeavor of the plot, giving it the heft it so desperately needed. While the plot itself ironically is the greatest weakness of True Detective, it nevertheless is executed well enough that as the conclusion wraps up, one is left as satisfied as a procedural could and then a bit more. The bit more certainly is buoyed by brilliantly executed set pieces, the standout of which is Fukunaga’s six-minute tracking shot of a violent shootout that won him an Emmy and deservedly so. True Detective’s technical achievements will be amongst its legacies, but the true remembrances belong to Rust and the seeping melancholia he so powerfully exuded. There was always a hint of hope in his eyes that flickered about his eyes as if trying to find something tenable to tether itself to. We were already mesmerized.



Name: True Detective

Created by: Nic Pizzolatto

Episode Titles: The Long Bright Dark, Seeing Things, The Locked Room, Who Goes There, The Secret Fate of All Life, Haunted Houses, After You’ve Gone, Form and Void

Executive Produced by: Steve Golin, Richard Brown, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Scott Stephens, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Nic Pizzolatto

Produced by: Carol Cuddy

Written by: Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles

Music by: T Bone Burnett

Edited by: Alex Hall , Affonso Gonçalves, Meg Reticker

Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw, Production Companies: Anonymous Content, Parliament of Owls, Passenger, Neon Black, Lee Caplin / Picture Entertainment

Image Courtesy: T Wang Nation


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