True Detective

This review contains spoilers.

Touch darkness and darkness touches you back.

I started watching the HBO series True Detective largely because of Internet hype (The Atlantic wondered if it was the best show on TV, and it was praised with the same level of enthusiasm as The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad). I kept watching True Detective because it was very good, and seemed to be taking the cop drama genre in a new direction. I finished watching True Detective feeling let down (and regretting having gotten caught up in so much online speculation) but also hopeful for television’s future.

True Detective is an American crime drama created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The format is different to that of most TV dramas: a single season (eight episodes) makes up one complete story. Season one (just finished) follows detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) on a 17 year hunt for a serial killer that began in 1995. A second unique aspect of this season is its multiple timelines. In 2012 Hart and Cohle are interviewed (separately) by detectives Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) in an effort to understand new and possibly related murders. Through these interviews we are taken back to 1995, when Hart and Cohle first started working together.

There’s so much that is good about this show (part of the reason why, I think, many people were disappointed with its conclusion). To start with, the performances are flawless. Harrelson’s portrayal of the classic tough guy cop is perfectly understated, and gives a sense of aggression always bubbling just below the surface. McConaughey is also excellent (though at times he overdoes it with the mumbling) as the philosophizing renegade with a dark past and a penchant for existential despair (my favourite Cohle moment is when he tells a woman who has just confessed to the murder of her child: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself”). Visually, also, True Detective is spectacular – aerial shots of the rich, green bayous of Louisiana, an abandoned overgrown church, the terrifying maze in the final episode, and who could forget the stunning sequence at the end of episode three? Finally, perhaps the most successful aspect of True Detective is its unsettling atmosphere, created largely by Cohle’s nihilistic musings on the nature of existence, his sinister hallucinations (the by-products of time he spent taking drugs undercover), and references to The King in Yellow (short stories by Robert W. Chambers about a fictional play that has the power to send its readers insane: review of this eerie collection coming soon!).

This wonderfully sinister tone, however, may have been created too well, and was possibly what let True Detective down in the end. As soon as The King in Yellow and Cohle’s visions were introduced many viewers (myself included) began to wonder if True Detective was more than just a cop show. Up until this point True Detective had been a very good, very enjoyable crime drama – but suddenly everyone got excited about what it might become, rather than what it was. Expectations were raised, and raised further after each episode thanks to the Internet. The show began to feel a lot more ambiguous and surreal – less like The Wire and more like Twin Peaks (a series I’ve been watching alongside True Detective – review coming soon). I never expected True Detective to totally cross genres, but its literary references and symbolic elements did lead me to hope for a deeper exploration of ideas. Perhaps, I thought, Pizzolatto is using the cop drama format as a vehicle for the contemplation of the nature of the universe, or the nature of evil. It would have been a nice twist on the title of the series, which comes from the clichéd, pulp fiction genre of detective stories. But in the end True Detective left a lot of ideas hanging, and a lot of hopeful viewers (including me) unsatisfied.

True Detective disappointed me in two ways. First, I felt that the finale did not live up to the thematic tone of the rest of the show; something Zack Beauchamp in this article from Think Progress accurately calls a “betrayal of … atmosphere.” True Detective – unintentionally, I’m sure – led me to believe it was about more than it was, and as a result I felt sort of tricked. I agreed with Spencer Kornhaber from The Atlantic’s True Detective roundtable discussion when he wrote – after the final episode – that “In retrospect … it all feels like the show and its viewers had been studying for a test that never came.”

Second, I felt let down by the resolution of True Detective’s narrative. Structurally, the season started out well: in episode five we glimpsed an element of unreliable narration that was very interesting, and a larger conspiracy involving politics and religion started to reveal itself. In the end, however, none of these threads were (for me, at least) satisfyingly tied up. The ultimate conclusion of the season, also, felt far too quick and seemed to come almost out of the blue; the killer tracked down thanks an obscure clue conveniently noticed in the last episode. The final scene was far too simplistic – hearing Rust Cohle sum up his 17 year ordeal as an age old battle between light and dark felt like something from an altogether different show. And Cohle’s further admission that he believes the light is winning was a much too abrupt and easy transformation for a character that for most of the show seemed to be teetering on the edge of complete despair.

I was hoping, during the finale, for one of those surprising but inevitable moments; a feeling of “I didn’t see that coming, but it makes complete sense that it should end that way!” That didn’t happen, and I felt that that True Detective – a beautifully made, dark, complex show – didn’t get the ending it deserved. I suppose the question is – does it really matter? If I enjoyed everything up until the final episode, can I really say that I was disappointed? I think the answer is yes. So much of my enjoyment of a series (or a novel or film) comes from anticipation. I become so invested in the characters, in the plot, in the setting that I can’t wait to see what happens. And if the climax doesn’t fit, then the journey as a whole loses some of its lustre. Certainly an amount of my dissatisfaction comes from reading an overabundance of Internet articles, and I do agree (to some extent) with Pizzolatto when he comments in this interview that “There are … those who will not be satisfied with any finale unless Rust Cohle steps out of their TVs, into their living rooms, and shoots them in the foot as some kind of meta-statement”. Putting all of that aside, I still felt that True Detective was missing something. And I think it’s important to voice this feeling, because television is getting very, very good – and constructive criticism can only help it get better. As a medium, TV has so much potential for brilliant storytelling: shorter seasons allow greater scope for developing character and plot than film, while at the same time avoiding the risk of running too long and losing the narrative arc. I was disappointed with True Detective because – somewhat paradoxically – I liked it so much, and I got a glimpse of just how incredible it could have been. Hopefully this season will learn from its mistakes. I will certainly be watching season two, and I’m excited to see how television in general continues to evolve.

True Detective first aired on HBO in 2014. A second season looks very likely, with Nic Pizzolatto writing but with a new director and actors.

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