When the enormously popular Breaking Bad finished up its final season last year, I was pretty concerned that we wouldn’t see another series of that same calibre for a good while (and let’s just say, I’m pretty happy that I ended up being so wrong). Although HBO’s True Detective isn’t quite at the same level as Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece – it’s definitely one of the most engaging new shows in years and a very welcome addition to the library of today’s ‘literary television’ shows.
True Detective is pitched as an anthology with each season focusing on a different cast and setting – think American Horror Story meets The Wire and you’ve more or less got the idea. This initial season focused on Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as they pursued the enigmatic killer of a woman named Dora Lange whose murder opens the story.
Most crime shows will be cautious about dragging a single murder investigation on for more than a few episodes but True Detective takes things to a whole new level. The murder and investigation itself takes place in 1995 but the series itself follows the pair as they interviewed by another set of detectives in the year 2012. The show does a great job of handling this immense stretch of time – knowing when to move the story ahead and knowing when to slow down and take its time. Over the course of the 17 year-long story, you don’t just follow the progress of the investigation but also the way that the lives of Rust and Marty intersect and evolve as a result of their obsession with and commitment to solving the murder. It’s also a very morally grey tale and one of the things that appealed to me about the series was its willingness to make you loathe the actions of its two leads as they go to maddening lengths to try and find Dora Lange’s killer.
The storytelling in True Detective is really quite bold and there’s very little like it on television (although it did remind me of a certain series of books). Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto has done a brilliant job with this first season and its hard to know what to expect the places that the story will go given that the guarantee that the two leads won’t be hanging around next season. Both McConaughey and Harrelson do a superb job at bringing their characters to life and it’s almost impossible to call a winner between the pair. Personally I preferred the nihilistic ravings of Rust to the everyday hypocrisy of Marty but at the end of the day, it’s the chemistry between the pair that really makes the show what it is.
Given that it’s the time of year when Hannibal is back on the air, I didn’t expect to be giving out many recommendations to other shows when it came to direction and cinematography but True Detective definitely gives Brian Fuller a run for his money in this regard. The editing on the show lets it fluidly and flawlessly jump between the different time periods it explores and the show makes the most of this to strike a powerful contrast between events as they happened and as Marty & Rust tell them. There is also a sequence about halfway through the series that is one of the most incredible single-take shots I have ever seen captured on film and is definitely worth mentioning.
The show also has this incredible sense of place to it. I thought the stylised antic of HBO’s vampire drama True Blood did a great job of capturing the grit and hypocrisy of the American south but True Detective arguably does a better job of capturing this essence of its setting in a single season than True Blood has done in six. The lingering and breathtaking landscape shots that the show features are just as big of a part of this as the meticulously detailed sets and locations are. When these landscape shots come together with the show’s desolate soundtrack and gripping dialogue it really brings to life a vision of a Louisiana built on secrets and lies and a world where the show’s two detectives – as smart and savvy as they are – are always going to find the truth to be just out of reach.
In one of the later episodes of the show, Rust utters the line “this isn’t a world where everything gets solved” and the show nails this pulpy style of storytelling perfectly. True Detective manages to nail this brilliant balance of making its mysteries just as compelling as its characters and while some of the show’s later episodes lack the impact and boldness of its first few – Season 1 is still an incredibly strong debut for the series and I can’t wait to see where future seasons will take us.