Colin Firth once said that when you’re reading a good book you see the world differently and you walk around in a bit of a haze, spellbound and looking at everything through a different prism. It’s true. Not just for books, but also for good television. When I was watching Breaking Bad (I finished the whole series in two weeks) I was answering my phone with “Yo!” and I decided to pace myself before I started calling everyone “bitch”. Ha ha! LOLz.
No, seriously. Breaking Bad was very good and for me it used to be right there at the top of the “Great things happening on TV”. Until I ran across True Detective conversations, and was so confused: “Are Harrelson and McConaughey starring in a movie together? And it doesn’t look like a romantic comedy?! I must watch this immediately!” And this is how I fell down that rabbit hole, and I’ve been walking in a haze ever since. I watched the 8 episodes in 3 days (1+2+3, 4+5+6, 7+8), which is probably the best way to watch the show, because it more or less follows the cadence of the story.
Below are the main reasons why I think True Detective is the superlative of everything I have seen on television (and dare I say the big screen?) so far. It’s raw, like an exposed wound, it’s philosophical, beautiful and frightening at the same time.
It’s so much more than a detective drama. Yes, it’s about two detectives (Rust Cohle and Marty Hart) chasing a serial killer in swampy Louisiana. But don’t expect your typical who dunnit with the clues, CSI-esque fingerprinting and DNA analysis. The show is about the lives of Rust and Marty, everything else in the story is just a vessel to carry both of them through the years, letting us see them change as men, detectives, friends, enemies. Don’t expect twists and unexpected turns of events. Don’t expect to have all the answers about the killer’s motives or a detailed description of the intricacies of his psychotic mind. The story is not about a complex villain, it’s about someone emblematic of all the most horrible parts of humanity. Cohle and Hart are put under the microscope and examined whether they are capable of overcoming the darkness within themselves, the fights, the lies, the weaknesses and everything else, and still doing their job of taking down the ‘bad men’.
Marty: Wondered ever if you’re a bad man? Rust: The world needs bad men, Marty. We keep the other bad men from the door.
It’s not a TV series. It’s an eight hour film. The show has one creator/writer: novelist Nic Pizzolatto and one director: Cary Fukunaga (of 2011 Jane Eyre fame). For this reason alone, you should watch it. Other character dramas like two of my favorites BrBa or Mad Men use several writers and directors throughout a season, and that change of pace, focus and style that comes with another person’s writing is very obvious to the viewer. This doesn’t happen with True Detective. All 8 episodes seamlessly follow one another, bringing cohesive characters that stay true to themselves.
This is a show you don’t watch just once. You will watch it once and keep thinking to yourself “this is fucking awesome!” When it’s over you’ll feel like something is missing from your life and you’ll try to fill that Southern gothic, neo-noir void (who knew you were into that?) by reading every True Detective-based philosophical essay you find, scouring /r/TrueDetective in search for interpretations and insight, and finally you’ll start watching again focusing on the rich symbolism, imagery and soundtrack only to realize that yes, this is cinematography perfection.
It will stick with you for months after you’ve watched and re-watched it. If you’re prone to depression, watching True Detective will not help. You might think “hey, it’s a crime show about a psychopath killing women and children, of course it’s depressing”. That’s not what I mean. Rust’s nihilistic musings, broken families, dilapidated houses, the violence and degradation, all create an atmosphere of abandonment and hopelessness that tugs at the strings of your mind and reveals a deep existential ache in your core you didn’t even know was there. Every character expresses their hopelessness in their own way: from Rust saying things like
Death created time to grow the things that it would kill.
I can see 40… and it’s like I’m that coyote in the cartoons, like I’m running off a cliff, and if I don’t look down and keep running, I might be fine, but, um… I think I’m all fucked up.
to the alcoholic former preacher’s
All my life I wanted to be nearer to God… But the only nearness… silence.
The whole show sticks in your mind like a cancer, consuming you until you give in to the hopelessness and realize that we’ve been lying to ourselves thinking we are more important than anyone else. In reality our life is just a collection of thoughts and memories, each of us a small raindrop melding in an infinite ocean, inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
It’s literary television. True Detective is a new type of television experience, building on the characteristics of previous shows like The Wire, BrBa, The Sopranos, presented through a narrative arc that doesn’t follow that of the traditional Hollywoodian script. It includes complex, multi-dimensional characters, is laden with symbolism and hidden meanings, bringing forth numerous commentaries, interpretations much like a good novel does. Attesting to its literary value, every word and gesture in the show has a meaning, another brush stroke to the painting that is each character: from the way Rust inhales those cigarettes like he wants to suck in every last bit of poisonous smoke, surely a hint towards how much he devalues his own life, to the woman with Munchhausen-by-proxy syndrome who had killed her three kids and whose brief screen presence is there to underscore the rot and decadence of the world.
The non-linear storytelling, jumping back and forth between 1995 and 2012 is nothing new for television (hell, even CSI does that sometimes). In True Detective though, the non-linearity is not there just for the sake of adding some pizzazz to the story; the juxtaposition of time lines is perfect. The voice-overs from 2012 add the main characters’ opinions over what happened in the past and many times the omniscient viewer understands that “what really went down in ‘02” and what the 2012 Hart & Cohle are saying are not the same story.
It’s poetry for the eyes. Much of the series’ allure is due to the cinematography – the locations, the light, the angle of the camera. It all contributes to the nightmare-ish, eerie psychosphere of the deep South. Starting with the opening credits, it becomes obvious that the show’s visuals are as ugly as they are beautiful, which instantly makes me think of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Edgar Allan Poe.
It will reward you with the best performances of some very talented actors. Obviously McConaughey. Obviously Harrelson. But that’s not all. The entire supporting staff delivers. Case in point: Shea Whigham’s stellar performance as the charismatic preacher.