By: Kyle Grubb
As the final category of Stuff to fill in, I struggled for a bit on deciding my choice. For all of the other choices, I picked something that had a significant impact on me, particularly when I was young, or at the very least I had a good story about. For TV, that was a bit tougher. Was I just going to review an entire show? If so, did I pick one of the cartoons I watched growing up? Because anything less than that was beginning to seem impossible to sum up in a single review. One of the biggest examples that kept coming to mind was Lost, just because of the presence it had in my life for all six years of its run. How, though, could I possibly sum all of that up? So, in the end, I decided to simply pick something great, something that I loved, that would be moderately easy to write about. Thus, we find ourselves at True Detective Season 1. Far and away the most recent thing that’s gotten recognition from this site, as of yet, and yet it just seemed like such an easy choice. With a self contained arc, I could talk about an entire story, an entire show essentially, from front to back in one simple review. And what a show I have to discuss.
On January 4th, 2014, I was just a young man that loved TV, and had recently grown to love HBO. I got myself sucked right up into the Game of Thrones hype train, and am still riding it to this day (Season 5 can’t get here fast enough. And yes, I have read the books). I had been seeing, for a while, promos for this new show, True Detective. The ads made it look odd. Everything about it just seemed to have this air of mysterious unease. I was curious. It had the faces of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson all over it, an unusual pairing of actors to headline a police show to be sure. Most of my friends didn’t think twice of the show. You see, they saw McConaughey as most people still saw McConaughey at this time: that guy that was in all of those stupid movies. Sure, he had his better roles, but he was, not to be mean, kind of a joke. Or at least, wasn’t considered much in terms of being a respectable performer. Me, I was in a slightly different position. I had seen Mud late in 2013. As anybody who has seen Mud can vouch, McConaughey was fantastic in that film. That was enough to draw my interest. And so, come the evening of January 4th, I switched my TV over to HBO. I wasn’t quite ready for what came my way.
After that first episode aired, I made it my mission to get people to watch. It took most of a week, but I was able to convince one of my friends to watch the first episode with me. He was hooked. He was there with me that next Sunday night when the second episode aired. In the ensuing week, we managed to convince yet another of our friends to watch the show, and together the three of us got through the first two episodes. He was there with us when episode 3 aired the next Sunday. The two of them came over to my house every Sunday night to absorb the newest episode of True Detective. Super Bowl XLVIII, the year my Seahawks won, still annoyed me a bit because it kept the next episode from airing. As each episode trickled into our lives, we were rife with theories. I went onto the internet to join in the conversation. Every single clue was picked through with a comb. People debated on not just who the Yellow King was, but if there really would be a supernatural element to the show. Being a part of that discussion as a community of people tried to figure out the identity of Dora Lange’s killer was something special. For that alone, this show, this season, will always be memorable to me.
True Detective, created by Nic Pizzolatto, is a crime anthology series. That means that each season focuses on its own story, setting, and characters, and essentially functions as its own self-enclosed show in its own right. The first season, which as of writing this is still the only season, stars Woody Harrelson as Martin Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cohle, two former Louisiana homicide detectives. In 2012, the two are being interviewed by a pair of detectives, played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles, about the murder of a woman, Dora Lange, way back in 1995. Recently, people have been killed in ways that are suspiciously similar to the Lange murder, similar in ways that were never released to the general public. The only problem: Hart and Cohle supposedly caught the killer all those years ago.
The multiple timeline mechanic is one of the big differences True Detective Season 1 has that separates it from other serial killer shows of the same ilk. The another is the tone. Louisiana holds with it an oppressive atmosphere that bleeds into every single shot. As Rust and Marty dive headlong into their search for a murderer, the characters they meet and the secrets they discover paint a startling picture of the world around them. Everyone is a potential killer, everyone could hold the clue that busts this wide open, by the people aren’t talking and the hidden truths seem determined to stay hidden. These two characters seem to be standing alone save each other, and even they are at each other’s throats.
The characters of Rust and Marty, and the wonderful performances their actors bring, are key to the success of this show. Harrelson is fantastic as Martin Hart, a husband (his wife is played by Michelle Monaghan) and proud father of two little girls who isn’t necessarily the loving family man he at first appears to be. Marty is very much the everyman, the kind doing his job to take care of his family and trying not to get too messed up by the insane shit he is forced to experience. He himself admits he isn’t the best detective going, but he knows his stuff and gets by. The moments when Marty’s shell begins to crack are when Harrelson is at his best. The contrast between his cool, not-giving-a-care outer exterior and that fire underneath help breathe an interest in a character that could very easily be overshadowed. You see, McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is arguably one of the greatest television characters of all time. Rust has had a tough life, and its turned him into a pessimist of the truest order. His mind is sharp as hell, but there is a distance to him from everyone around him that he is eager the rest of the world respects. An amazing detective, he notices the smallest details that many would overlook, and his outsider mentality, having come from Texas, provides him a different perspective that many of the locals aren’t willing to consider. His viewpoint on life, and his constant speeches, though, are what truly define him. The man could have a whole book of quotes just from what we saw alone. Everything he speaks is either philosophical genius or amazingly articulate bullshit, and you’re never quite sure which is which. McConaughey is fantastic in the part, portraying this character’s journey and how he’s been changed by what occurs throughout the investigation. Apparently McConaughey wrote a 450-page document expanding on Rust’s outlook and mindset throughout the series as well as fleshing out his back story. He really deserved to win something for this part…
The first season of True Detective unfolds over 8 episodes. It’s a tightly told story, with every moment either tying in to the overall mystery or expanding on the characters. The narrative of the season works so well because the entire script, penned single-handedly by series creator Pizzalotto, was finished before filming ever began. As such, the season truly ends up feeling less like a television series and more like an 8 hour movie. To contribute to the cinema-like feel is director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directs every episode of the season. This gives the whole run a coherent feel that many shows lack, and also allows it to possess a style that it doesn’t have to worry about fluctuating from episode to episode. In addition, in the climax of episode 4, Fukunaga crafts what is likely one of the greatest shots in television history, a six-minute oner that follows Rust through a series of buildings in the middle of a giant gang fight. It’s a masterful shot, and succeeds in pulling you face-first into the action. The entire show is both both written and shot with amazing intent and skill. In addition, composer T. Bone Burnett manages to craft a memorable score that simultaneously never draws attention away from the action onscreen.
The story itself is great, as you watch these two men recount the details of the case that defined their career. The show uses the narration in interesting ways, and without spoiling much, manages to call doubt to some of the things these men are saying. There was more to this case than was written down in any file, and the worry that maybe this case isn’t truly solved floats just above all of the proceedings. In the end, though, it truly is about the characters of Rust and Marty. They are the heart and soul of the season, and their journey and growth, even more so than the mystery, is what the show is truly about. While the pace is slow and deliberate in the early episodes, eventually it grabs you and refuses to let go until the final minutes of episode 8 roll by and you’re left transfixed, staring at your television screen. Some may not be pleased with the ending, but in my opinion it is representative of everything the series did from the word go.
The first season of True Detective will go down for me as an example of TV done right. It had a plan from the word go, it treated its characters and story with respect and maturity, and it kept viewers on the edge of their seat right until the end. Both Marty and Rust are great, layered characters, with Rust in particular going down as one of the greats. Acting was phenomenal across the board, the writing was excellent at every turn, the direction was inspired and brave, the music was haunting and emotional, and all of those individual pieces worked together to create a tone unlike anything else on TV. If nothing else, there was nothing quite like Season 1 of True Detective, and who’s to say Season 2 will be able to measure up. Still, even if this show only ends up being a one-season wonder, what a season that was.
True Detective: Season 1
And in honor of Rustin Cohle, here are some of his most entertaining insights: