Heavy Weight Champions of 2014: True Detective

The season-anthology format pioneered by American Horror Story is probably one of the most refreshing injections of energy into Television in the last few years. Sadly, while Murphy decided to […]

The season-anthology format pioneered by American Horror Story is probably one of the most refreshing injections of energy into Television in the last few years. Sadly, while Murphy decided to turn AHS into a playground for his extremely unique talent for disjointed storytelling filled with over the top “Oh shit, that happened on a TV show?”-ness not many other options flourished after its immediate announcement. Of course, it could just be because producers everywhere were holding their breath to see if Asylum turned out to be economically unsuccessful. And even if I’m not his biggest fan, I will say, major kudos to Murphy in crafting what is easily the most insane, utterly out of control TV show in recent memory. It’s a shame that that anarchic energy does not translate into entertainment for me, for reasons not worth getting into.

However, what did entertain me during 2014 was seeing how many other shows took the idea of “One season, one story” and ran with it. Especially January’s first big surprise: Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective. Told as a sequence of flashbacks framed by a police interrogation of two former police detectives, True Detective is the story of Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Martin “Marty” Hart, the detectives in charge of the “King In Yellow” case, as their case is being revised by the Missouri police because they believe they have found a new victim and a new lead.

In a lot of ways, I feel uncomfortable celebrating True Detective. I believe the show is flagrantly misogynistic and that its “justification”* for this simply does not improve the narrative and it, in fact, makes it more questionable. Not to mention that True Detective could easily be one of the most overwrought and outright pretentious shows on TV at times,  if not during most of its running time. And I mean actually pretentious, as it constantly churned out long speeches on the nature of our reality without having a single character contest those claims, effectively making it so that interpreting them as the author’s voice was the most natural thing in the world.

Yet, True Detective managed to cast a spell on audiences across the world. A lot of it has to do with Cary Joji Fukunaga, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey taking weak material and turning it into truly heart wrenching and powerful stuff. But the core material is not entirely weak. The truth about True Detective is that it possesses very few virtues but it dedicates itself to them. Its brutal and powerful exploration of male friendship and its nature as something intoxicating and always ready to go at the minute that egos are bruised makes for compelling TV all on its own, if only because it lets two movie actors with natural chemistry and previous rapport do their thing. But also because it leads to probably one of the best explorations of depression I’ve yet to experience.

Rustin Cohle will probably go down in history as McConaughey’s finest achievement as an actor. Throughout eight episodes, we see Cohle age and de-age while he struggles with humanity, his place in the world and ultimately his own fading will to live. Cohle’s characterization is not entirely that interesting except for one detail that McConaughey latches to constantly and it’s that this man’s pretentions speeches and world view are not the product of enlightenment as he’d have you believe. They’re the product of sheer and utter heartbreak. And in this heartbreak, Cohle has decided to redefine himself as a man of darkness. The sort of individual who only deals with serial killers and death in general because he can’t commit himself to life in any shape or form.  Admittedly this material is not new or really exciting in and of itself, but McConaughey turns it into something vital by making Cohle not likeable or relatable at times. His pain and suffering are real, and his reaction is not that uncommon, but it isn’t until the very end that we really see the wound he’s been hiding through sheer nihilism and indifference to the world in any other way than as a prisoner of a jail he calls life. But the show never extends forgiveness to Rust for his actions as a heartbroken and disillusioned agent, which is perhaps, the most brilliant touch. Perhaps this is not a celebration of True Detective but of Rustin Cohle himself, to my mind.

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Or that would be the case if True Detective did not have Cary Joji Fukunaga on board. Perhaps the best TV director of the year, Fukunaga turned True Detective into his playground, where he showed a fine eye for cinematography, editing and acting in an eight episode document that hopefully  will let him do his thing more and more. While True Detective’s feverish cinematographic highlight will always be its fourth episode’s amazing one-track shot montage of an undercover police raid that turns into a race riot, I was always extremely fond of the sequence of events depicted in episode 5, where we learn more and more how willing to lie these two detectives are.

In fact Fukunaga’s eye for atmosphere was so thorough that, for years, we will discuss whether The King In Yellow being a mortal was a betrayal of the material presented to us. To me, the idea that True Detective had actual space for the supernatural is simply laughable. True Detective was always pulpy, sure, but there was no space in the story of Rust and Marty but for Rust and Marty. Every other character,  every other story is born to serve these egotist men who see themselves as reluctant protectors of their community.

One of the brilliant aspects of True Detective is its sense of community and specificity-vs-broadness ratio. The Missouri of the show stands in for the southern Gothic grime of yore at its creepiest, with its voodoo and demon worshipers. But there’s a modern tinge to it all. There’s no actual voodoo to it all, or even to the believers who commit some of the most despicable actions shown in the story. Instead, it is the underlying message of the nature of human-as-beast that lurks within these territories, as Rust and Marty sink themselves lower and lower while trying to wrangle with the crimes and criminals that surround the king in yellow at Carcosa.

However, True Detective’s commitment to darkness could be exasperating a lot of the time. Its overwrought speeches about the nature of time as a flat circle and life as a nightmare often got in the way of the fun sleight of hands that made what turned out to be a simple whodunit into a feverish nightmare that none of us wanted to wake up from. But in its flawed aspects, True Detective’s first season was still one of the most engaging shows out there and possibly one of the bigger flashpoints in terms of what TV could be and look like for the next few years of the medium.