True Detective is a show about men. Men with names like Martin Hart and Rust Cohle, men who investigate murders and hit people with metal boxes. These men don’t waste time with frivolous matters like smiling. There are lawns to be mowed and brows to be furrowed and the raw deal of existence to be debated. These are men who drink cans of beer and then use their knives (these men carry knives) to carve small, metal figures of other men out of the empty aluminum. The metal men are not for display or for company. They’re merely the byproduct of the Things Men Do, like the ash that drops from their cigarettes or the mutilated bodies they leave kneeling in fields with antlers affixed to their heads. Men make the world, and women — when they’re not comforting their straying husbands with sympathy sex or being murdered and abandoned in fields with antlers affixed to their heads — have to deal with it. Preferably offscreen. You will accept these things or get out of the way.
It’s more than possible that you’re fine with this. Maybe you have faith that tremendous actors can elevate the same old antiheroic discussions about morality and shades of gray, and that sumptuous, ambitious storytelling can refresh — or at least distract from — what appears to be a distressingly familiar story. Perhaps you aren’t yet exhausted, as I am, by American television’s endless fascination with the tormented psyche of white men and/or serial killers. If so, you might be able to demonstrate more patience with True Detective than I’ve been able to muster after three punishingly grim hours. I approached the show ready to reach for superlatives. Instead, the first half of the season mostly had me reaching for cans of beer — and made me grateful I don’t carry a knife.
The series, which debuts this Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, is set in two distinct time periods. The majority of the action takes place in 1995, when Detectives Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Cohle1 (Matthew McConaughey) investigate what appears to be a serial killing2 amid the shrimp shacks and revivalist tents of southern Louisiana. Occasionally the story cuts to the present day, when Hart and Cohle, badgeless and in varying states of disarray, are called in by a different set of cops (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) to ruminate on what, exactly, went down all those years before. At least through the first half of the season, these present-day scenes are little more than extended monologues contained inside a claustrophobic interview room. They provide Harrelson and McConaughey with a chance to hold court and experiment with their hair while the game, underserved Potts and Kittles do little but react and give each other the side-eye every time McConaughey cuts into another beer can.
Rust Cohle! I almost didn’t make it past the first episode when I realized McConaughey’s character was named “Rust Cohle.” It’s so ludicrous; it’s so great. Upon reflection, there’s a case to be made that every McConaughey character has been named “Rust Cohle.” Wasn’t he playing a Rust Cohle in Dazed and Confused? And surely that was Rust Cohle dancing, shirtless, in Magic Mike. A glance at IMDb suggests that the only more accurately named character McConaughey has ever played was Denton Van Zan in
Failure to Launch Reign of Fire. I’d like to think that, on the right night with the right number of High Lifes in our bellies, there’s a little bit of Rust Cohle in us all.
In 2014 these guys would know for sure it’s a serial killer because of the presence of antlers, one of contemporary television’s most bizarre and ridiculous tropes.
One has to imagine that the present will eventually overshadow the past — there’s either a copycat killer on the loose or the real perpetrator was never put away — but until then the split perspective provides a neat narrative trick: It allows the central mystery to move in two directions at once. By placing the telling of the Dora Lange murder investigation squarely in the hands of those responsible for closing it, True Detective directly challenges the first word in its title. And by submerging the audience in an unsettling sea of uncertainty, it forces those of us without badges to do our part to piece together what really happened and, more importantly, what it all means.3
I may have seen fewer than half the episodes, but I have every confidence that True Detective is a series with some very fixed opinions on What It All Means.
The twin timelines also mirror something essential about True Detective itself. It’s a show uncomfortably split in two. With its sterling production values, moonlighting movie stars, and intentionally limited canvas — the series runs eight episodes; subsequent seasons, should they be commissioned, would introduce new cases and stars — True Detective is an impressive vision of television’s bold, unconventional future. Yet its bleak subject matter and the punishing grimness of its tone are a familiar and unfavorable reflection of the worst excesses of TV’s blood- and testosterone-soaked present. It’s not a pretty picture — in fact, it’s often extremely unpleasant. But the frame is certainly nice.
Before we zoom in any further, let’s go wide — wider than the horizon-length tracking shots series director Cary Fukunaga prefers. True Detective is a big deal, deserving of our attention even if it may not merit our praise. For all the talk of television’s creative resurgence, it’s worth noting how static the construction of TV has become: We’ve reached a point where the content can be challenging, but the form almost never is. And so network dramas plod along dumbly with their impossible contracts (up to seven years for most actors) and season lengths (22 episodes, none of which is guaranteed to air),4 while cable has calcified into a rhythm as predictable as the blues: 12-episode seasons that dramatically rise and fall with the recycled breath of groundbreaking series that came before.5
The former guarantees the actors will grow unhappy. The latter guarantees the audience eventually will too.
Four weeks of exposition, one week of misdirection, bottle episode, drug episode, stakes-laying for the finale, penultimate episode (the one with the big death), and season finale (the one with the music montage).
For decades, small-screen snobs have pointed to the British model as superior. An ocean away, TV seasons are only as long as they need to be, ranging from three episodes (Black Mirror) to 14 (Shameless). When the story is done, the show is too. Freed from unreasonable commitments, prominent actors jump between projects, and mediums, with impunity. It’s why Idris Elba found time for Luther while he was fighting robotos for Hollywood and why Martin Freeman can treat The Hobbit as a vacation from his real work on Sherlock. But domestic types always eyed that sort of thinking as suspiciously as they do soccer. Even if giant stars were willing to stoop to television — a stigma that only recently seems to have lifted — limited runs means limited audiences, which in turn suggests limited profits. In other words, finite television simply wasn’t an investment worth making.
These days, the opposite is true: Old-fashioned TV shows that run forever without any sense or promise of an ending are investments that viewers can no longer afford. There will be no cliff-hangers on True Detective, no hedging or stalling. When this season’s story ends, it’s truly over. This is no longer terrifying for the industry. Thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, TV shows have afterlives that far outlast their initial airings. And now that libraries of content are just as important as splashy debuts, miniseries have become, as FX president John Landgraf told me, the great “market inefficiency.”6 Rather than being seen as a cul-de-sac to limit audiences, they’re a potentially noisy way to attract them — not even necessarily to the show, but to the network-as-brand. This iteration of True Detective may only air for eight weeks, but it will stream forever on HBOGO, another shiny (and marketable!) chip in the network’s well-curated stockhouse of prestige.
Landgraf was ahead of the curve on this, stockpiling limited series projects from the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, and others. His hugely successful anthology American Horror Story was clearly a model for True Detective, though it remains to be seen if any of this season’s cast would return, Jessica Lange–style, in a new role.
True Detective is unique even beyond its earning potential. Bucking the trend of nearly everything else on American TV, all eight episodes were written by one man, rising novelist and screenwriter Nic Pizzolato, and directed by another: Cary Fukunaga, best known for the excellent immigration thriller Sin Nombre. This is high-test auteurism, every scene an unfiltered expression of an independent vision and point of view. Thanks to HBO’s deep pockets, the lily is gilded further with a moody, elliptical score by Americana master T-Bone Burnett and hallucinatory cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake), who shot every frame on location in Louisiana. At times it’s possible to feel the dank humidity, to smell the creeping ozone of an imminent thunderstorm and hear the crunch of crabgrass underfoot.
And it’s thrilling to see movie stars like McConaughey and Harrelson crackling in nearly every scene. They’re not slumming in TV, they’re soaring. Both are at the top of their game, though McConaughey in particular seems to be playing a different sport altogether: His True Detective turn comes smack in the middle of one of the more remarkable career resurrections in recent memory, immediately after a role that should get him an Oscar nomination (as unlikely activist Ron Woodroof in the excellent Dallas Buyers Club) and just before one that will likely break records at the box office (as the handpicked lead of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s first movie after parking the Batmobile). Of course, Harrelson is no slouch, either: Between acts of grand theft cinema in smaller flicks like Seven Psychopaths, he has kept busy collecting paychecks and a new generation of fans in the money-printing Hunger Games franchise. The two could have been anywhere else on earth during the long months it took to film True Detective, but they chose to be here, slipping in bayou mud and dodging crawfish shells. That desire is palpable in their performances.
All of this is to say that True Detective‘s form is truly radical and forward-thinking. It’s really too bad the content is anything but.
Back in the days when films were actually shot on film, every reel would begin with a countdown to aid the projectionist’s timing. Spliced somewhere inside of that countdown, and nearly always hidden from audience view, was a quick image of what, for unclear reasons, came to be known unartfully as “china girls ” or “leader ladies.” These were still photos of anonymous women — often employees of the studio or film lab — placed there to help technicians balance the skin tones and colors of the film they were working on. The women were there, in other words, as a baseline of normalcy, a glimpse of real life around which to orient the fiction.
True Detective is in desperate need of a woman like that, someone to reflect and maybe modulate the darkness its posters brag about. Someone to provide even a fleeting sense of real life. It wouldn’t even necessarily need to be a woman — although that would certainly help, as the few onscreen women who aren’t wearing antlers or grinding on poles are given little to do but get angry or aroused. (The gifted Michelle Monaghan does her best in the thankless, and occasionally topless, role of Hart’s wife. Alexandra Daddario is on similar display as his mistress.) It would just need to be something genuine and relatable that could float to the show’s dank, oily surface: a joke, a heartfelt desire, a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun. Because despite what recent television trends would have us believe, darkness isn’t a stand-in for depth or maturity. Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.
And True Detective is plenty dark. The murder of Dora Lange — her body adorned with Satanic imagery, the crime scene littered with creepy wooden sculptures — leads Hart and Cohle down a thorny path littered with drugs, missing girls, prostitution, and evangelical thunder.7 I’d hoped that McConaughey, an actor who takes to Southern parts like flint to tinder, might serve as some kind of spark to combat the gloom, but Cohle is the biggest downer of all. In 1995, he’s an antisocial oddball who jots down everything in an oversize ledger and is prone to unprompted philosophical disquisitions. (“Human consciousness was a misstep in evolution.”) Once revealed, his reasons for acting the way he does, for staying awake all night reading profiling books, for hallucinating great rolling clouds of purple and seeing traces on the highway that look like Tron light cycles doing doughnuts at Monte Carlo, are actually intriguing. But even they get lost in the torrent of verbiage spilling from his mouth.8 McConaughey is magnetic throughout, even more so in his present-day incarnation, when he has traded the ledger for a Dickey Betts makeover and a life of disciplined binge drinking. But he’s lightning trapped in a bottle.
The preachers are played by Clarke Peters, of The Wire and Treme, and Shea Whigham, of Boardwalk Empire. The first article I ever wrote for Grantland looks more prescient by the day!
“He absorbs their dread with his narrative. Because of this he’s effective in proportion to the amount of certainty he can project. Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain, dulls critical thinking … ”
The garrulous Harrelson does his best to react to his partner’s rambles with the appropriate mix of frustration and annoyance — Martin Hart is, in his own words, a “regular-type dude with a big-ass dick” — but he’s also limited by the material. He’s a terrier who can smell meat but isn’t allowed to lunge for it. In his enjoyable 2010 novel Galveston, about a hit man on the run with a teenage prostitute, series creator Pizzolatto was able to alleviate the heavy stomp of machismo with the more buoyant inner life that prose allowed him to create for his protagonist. (The less said about Pizzolatto’s only previous screen credit — two episodes of The Killing — the better.) Stripped of that ability here, Pizzolatto tells instead of shows: Hart declaims his need for boundaries between work and home, his right to a neatly ordered life. What’s lacking is much insight into his appetites.
It’s quite possible that all of this is missing on purpose; that the final five hours will fill in the 17-year gap during which Rust Cohle grew a mustache and lost his edge, and will reveal the ways the early episodes were puncturing holes in the characters’ aggrieved swagger rather than propping it up. But I’ve watched enough TV — and enough HBO — not to expect it. Just because True Detective is exceptional doesn’t make it great. There’s plenty of depth here to sink into. I just wish it didn’t feel so much like drowning.