Friday, April 11, 2014

True Detective Review

True Detective is, in a word, stunning.

The way that it's filmed, the actors, the colours, the plot; it's all simply flawless.

Jumping backwards and forwards in time over about 17 years, the plot follows two detectives; Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they struggle to uncover the identity of a serial killer in the mess of personal conflict and conspiracy. Cohle often postulates depressing world theories and views to his equally arrogant but significantly less enlightened partner as they navigate a backdrop of religion and self-discovery, culminating in a terrifying discovery.

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A Re-Birth of the Miniseries Structure

Perhaps the first intriguing thing about True Detective is its format and structure. Told through the narration of main characters being interviewed in the semi-present and jumping backwards and forwards in time, the show is able to demonstrate the deterioration of relationships, lives and physical appearances as the mystery builds. It successfully articulates the life stresses faced, especially by the two lead characters that go well beyond the immediate goal of solving the murders. Their personal lives and views completely colour their ability to do their jobs and make for fantastic television. Harrelson and McConaughey wear layers of make-up and give incredibly detailed performances to provide extra nuance to audiences looking for clues or wanting to understand much more about the human condition.

The series is eight episodes long, bringing back the mini-series format with a new cast and story on the cards for season two. Current rumblings are that it might even star Brad Pitt so there are certainly a lot of people interested in reviving this style of story telling.


The show relies in many respects on darkness, played out through the characters psyches and through events, to paint a picture of the world in which we live in a way that we might not be akin to seeing. I recently read Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, written around 1984 and certainly ground breaking for its time, and for me, True Detective is The Wasp Factory of our time. It explores ritual and religion in a dark and sinister manner and one that also questions the authenticity of those practicing such beliefs. At the same time, it explores why people need these beliefs in order to function in a world that they don't understand and don't want to understand. Rust certainly spouts some amazingly deep and well-crafted monologues about life, the universe and existence that are simultaneously beautiful and devastatingly depressing. He paints a world of pain that we identify with and yet do not want to admit might be real. This is what makes the audiences reactions so powerful when he experiences any sense of hope or relief.

The show also examines humanity’s ability to pretend that we believe in certain religions and rituals, only to bend and distort them to our own ends when convenient. Rust deplores this behaviour and tries desperately to make sense of it in a way that Marty rarely does. For Marty, the rules and smoke screens are a necessary part of his ability to function, but so too is his ability to break the rules and create his own rationale for the way he lives without ever examining it.

Core to it's success is also the exploration of time and its affects on the mind and body, the things that we think are important and that make us who we are, those things that are lost that completely unravel us and those experiences that allow us to move to the next phases of our lives. Watching the characters physically deteriorate, describe mental deterioration and yet seem at times to be at their best despite the deterioration, adds a strange twist to the expectation that we will only become less of ourselves over time rather than better or more enlightened and able to cope with our experiences. This isn't to say that with time comes all wisdom, certainly there are many things that the characters lose over time and can never get back and many questions left unanswered, but this is all part of the beauty of this kind of story telling.

The title True Detective also starts to reference, whether intentional or not, the glossy crime drama we see on television compared to the actual hardships involved in working on traumatic crimes and living with that memory and knowledge. The characters decline with time of course, but for the most part they also deteriorate with their experience. The more they peel back the layers and investigate and become honest with the nature of their lives and their story, the story of these murders, the more their minds and hearts seem to fail. However, it is in all of that that the pair can find what is truly important and see crucial clues that they had not seen before.


Perhaps most interestingly and importantly, the characters themselves are well developed, well explored and exceptionally performed. As you watch them straddle the line between old and unimportant now, whilst rash and arrogant at their prime, you really get a sense of who they are and the role that they will play in the story. I particularly loved that although neither of them were particularly likeable, you as an audience member were positioned to sympathise with Rust and to see the world through his eyes in the most clever and unexpected ways.

Although both were successful, within the canon of the show, it was Marty who was well liked by his colleagues even though he was unenlightened and realistically, could barely get anything right. He had very little natural talent in doing his job while Rust had poor social skills. Together they were exceptional, but apart they were inadequate at performing their detective rolls. In their personal lives they were barely functional, and that fact impacted severely on how they handled the case in the earlier days. Ultimately, watching Marty find some sense of self and enlightenment is also rewarding to the viewer, as it is explored in the context of Rust and their partnership. It is not often that such prickly and unlikeable characters can be sympathetic and lead a magnificent production like this and both Harrelson and McConaughey should be commended.


The plot itself shifts through cover-ups and misinformation, incompetency and instability, murders, disappearances and crime. It deftly keeps the viewer feeling nauseous as more information is released and pieces of the puzzle click together. The way that colour, film angle and costume tells the story are visible is a way that perhaps other shows are shier about. True Detective is not afraid to wash out colours when necessary, use absence of music and sharpness of music to convey unease, jump between timelines and visibly change its characters to carry the story forward making it feel more like a genre piece than a modern day crime drama.

In a similar fashion the plot shifts, deliberately withholds information and deliberately misleads the viewers. The story itself, while important, is not the whole purpose of the piece. The characters are elevated to the most intriguing part of the mystery as well as the affects that this unsolved crime has on their lives rather than any focus on completely solving the mystery itself. Solving this case is a catalyst for friendship and self-discovery, which is perhaps different to recent ways of story telling.

Having said all of that, the plot itself is deftly crafted and the audience have to hang on every word and every visual clue to piece the puzzle together. Each revelation is more disturbing than the last. A girl is ritualistically murdered and posed in a field, a young girl long missing is found to have been sacrificed, a drug dealer holds a part of the puzzle but in uncovering it things go horribly wrong, and many years later, the events of the past conspire to stop the detectives seeing what was in front of their eyes all along. The gruesome tale has a really authentic quality that leaves the viewer reeling the whole way through and aghast at the end.

True Detective also offers closure in a different kind of way. The story is not subject to ratings or renewals of season, it is self-contained and knows exactly where it is going and where it will end. That doesn’t mean that every thread needs to be neatly tied off; only that the viewer and the characters get a sense of a definitive chapter closing and a sense of release.

This show is highly recommended to everyone and will keep you thinking for days after the end.

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