Due to some (not so recent) news of the True Detective anthology series revival and some heavy persuasion, I decided to go back and watch the first season to see what exactly I missed out on in 2014.
Dark and gritty, True Detective Season One is nothing short of a masterpiece of television. Backed by an excellent script by creator Nick Pizzolatto, director Carey Fukunaga helms the production, directing all eight episodes of the first season. Although the show is well-directed, the strength of the show lies in Pizzolatto’s script, as he constructs a world torn between debauchery and righteousness.
After constructing such a broken, hopeless world, Pizzolatto places our two main characters, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), at its epicenter. A rigid dichotomy between the personalities and ideals of the two main characters puts them at odds, causing them to cling onto their sense of justice and retribution to make their partnership work for the greater good of the Louisiana bayous. Woody Harrelson’s performance as Marty Hart is organic and powerful. Relatable, Harrelson’s performance is a sympathetic one. While relying on a few cliches and crime-drama character tropes, Woody Harrelson portrays a man struggling with his masculinity with tact, teetering the line between “okay, he just made a bad decision. I can sympathize” and “okay, this dude is a jerk” with mastery.
As good as Harrelson’s performance as Detective Hart was, Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Detective Rustin Cohle is nothing short of spectacular. A shell of a man, Rust Cohle’s outlook on life is a bleak one. Dark, cynical, and unorthodox, Cohle is unwelcome in the small Louisiana town the show takes place in, a fact that is made known to him several times throughout the eight-episode season. Burying himself in his work, Cohle dedicates his life to solving crimes, his strong sense of retribution and justice reeling his character into relatability.
True Detective finds its solace and its comfort in its emptiness. It’s an emptiness in Rust Cohle’s personality and life, the sweeping vistas of an empty Louisiana bayou, the emptiness of a decrepit elementary school, the emptiness of dialogue as director Carey Fukunaga follows certain characters in certain scenes. Emptiness is as much of a character in True Detective as Rust and Marty, whether it be a lack of emotion, dialogue, or large sweeping panoramics.
Disappearing into their characters, Harrelson and McConaughey help bring this world to life. A show with heavily flawed main characters like this could easily fall into an abyss of character cliches (especially crime dramas), but True Detective avoids all of that and uses its characters to bring to life the show’s greatest asset – its atmosphere. Like a looming darkness, the show is filled with an underlying sense of dread and despair that builds exponentially with each passing episode. Stunningly grotesque and equally monstrous, the show manages to get under your skin like no other show in recent memory has done. A looming evil so vile, it can be physically uncomfortable at times to think that that is the reality our characters live in. Directly mentioned in the script throughout the series, the show showcases the struggle between “light and dark” literally and figuratively as it follows the main characters expedition to rid the world of the darkness plaguing the local Louisiana communities. In a world where every corner can reveal a new threat or terror, Rust and Marty exemplify the human goodness of human nature. Unwavering and strong, the two main characters are revealed to have as much in common as they have differences.
While a fantastically made show, True Detective has its flaws, primarily towards the end of the series. Rushed, the show wraps up in one one-hour episode, when perhaps an extra episode or two to tie up the final encounter and set up the final stage would have helped certain character arcs make more sense.
From start to finish, True Detective is a masterpiece of story-telling. Through its characters, atmosphere, dialogue, directing, and cinematography, the showrunners were able to create one of the best single-season crime dramas in recent television history.
Also, that six-minute tracking shot is a goddamn masterpiece.