True Detective: A Game Changer and the Benefit of Good Writing
Warning: There will be spoilers that may or may not be correct depending on when you are reading this.
Three episodes in and True Detective has its viewers seething – not because of quality or content (though HBO’s ‘sex sells’ policy is pitching a tent), but because they’ve reached a two-week long breakwater due to the Super Bowl; you can hear the chuckle of Sherlock fans as they prepare for another year-long absence. Broadcast earlier this month to HBO’s biggest viewing audience in three years, the show has already nestled in along Game of Thrones as the channel’s leading drama. As they prepare for life without the outgoing Boardwalk Empire, studio executives have offered True Detective’s creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, a two-year deal to extend the anthology past its première series. We follow Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they recount the events of a religion-fuelled murder back in 1995, and the subsequent manhunt to catch the man responsible; while two present day detectives (Tory Kittles and The Wire’s Michael Potts) question the protagonists in light of a recent, similar crime – but they’ve already caught the killer … haven’t they?
Critics have drawn comparisons with Thomas Harris’ Hannibal novels. We have the grisly crime-scene, the weirdo killer (or suspect), and the detectives hot on their trail. From the outset, True Detective could be lifted from the pages of the next Silence of the Lambs, but delving deeper reveals a narrative rich in character study undercutting the mere shock value of Mr Lector. That’s not to say Pizzolatto’s baby is without the gruesome and demented. A corpse (blue-skinned, bloodied and gashed) wearing a crown of antlers greeted viewers in the first episode. And more recently, we saw a glimpse of the prime suspect, covered in ritualistic tattoos and wearing nothing but his best pair of white undies and a gas-mask – its hose swinging like a devilish pendulum. But what makes the show so endearing? Nic Pizzolatto has a proven track record in his short career as a writer. He is published in the Oxford American, the Atlantic and other magazines, and has plaudits for his writing during his time at Louisiana State University and University of Arkansas. His work, much like True Detective, takes place in the American South. His first novel, Galveston, spans across New Orleans and Texas and takes a critical look at a strong-arm man dealing with lung cancer and a bounty hanging over his head. His writing is soaked in humanism and the boldness of a Cormac McCarthy novel, as pointed out by Gone, Baby Gone author, Dennis Lehane, and this is reflected in his fledgling screen writing vocation.
From the word go, the man’s screenplay draws you in. His dialogue is thoughtful and provocative, executed to a tee by Matthew McConaughey (who is revelling in his purple-patch here), and the ever-reliable Woody Harrelson. The conversations and interplay between the two are the crux of the show’s foundation. Cohle echoes Sartre and Camus in his existentialist monologues, staring absently out of a cruiser window at the bleakest Louisiana farmland, while Hart regards him with a certain degree of suspicion and distaste – you could say that Cohle is the secular invader to Hart’s walled-off Christian community. He ponders:
I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist… I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Of course, this doesn’t sit well with his partner or his new surroundings, but neither does he. Pizzolatto presents two very different people, both tarnished, and perched at either end of the spectrum. As of yet, they are both working together and, using the term loosely, cooperative; but Cohle’s relentless dedication to the case has proved a threat to the delicate foundations Hart has placed to separate work and family. This relationship is the of what Pizzolatto is trying to convey. He uses the murder as a vehicle to guide the show as a tense and brooding character study. The riveting script is only one pillar of strength supporting this juxtaposition; the other being the astonishing talent of the leads and supporting cast. Harrelson has always been a strong and reliable character actor with a knack for giving performances that lend a certain gravitas to the end product. He juggles his wife (Michelle Monaghan), his children and the job with increasing difficulty as the show progresses – and at the same time struggles with a jealous affection for his mistress (Alexandra Daddario). It makes it difficult to root for him, but Harrelson plays the part with conviction. During the 1995 segments, his temper rages higher and higher without slipping into Al Pacino overacting territory, as the walls of a carefully-planned lifestyle start to crumble. In the flash forwards (or the present day, depending on how you look at it) he seems assured, but occasional glances and messing with a naked ring finger hint at the desolation of his marriage; something we half-expect three episodes in. He confides in his wife:
I get the feeling like, I can see forty and it’s like I’m the 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 I think I’m all fucked up.
Yes you are, Woody, at least we think you are. At this point, the audience may have read that he means more than just his adultery here. You can look into his young daughter’s explicit drawings, and his tendency to lose grips with his anger (when his lover sleeps with another man, and when Cohle catches on to the affair) as possible indicators of an insidious agenda – though this is just curious guesswork.
McConaughey, however, extends a run of career-best performances that have culminated in Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild success (not to mention an Oscar nomination) for his turn as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, and will be the one who receives all the plaudits. Having already snagged a role in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi project, Interstellar, this year may be his best yet. In a nutshell, he’s a bit weird back in ’95, then he got weirder. We see his character, ragged-haired and gaunt, casting aside sobriety in the modern-day (though he still delivers a mean, southern-drawl sermon on existentialism). He translates the script so well on the television screen, his low-key delivery and subtle nuances betraying a man haunted by the death of his daughter, we cannot take our eyes off him for a second. When his younger self rambles, the viewer clings to his every word. When he moves, he does so deliberately; straight-backed and proper – unless he succumbs to alcohol’s temptation in his introverted grief. In fact, everything he does seems so meticulously plotted by actor, director and writer to present a jarring and shattering representation of a man’s unique struggle with depression, that it does so with a disconcerting realism in extraordinary circumstances.
McConaughey and Harrelson have both stated that they will not return for a second series. Like American Horror Story, the show is anthological. By the end of the eighth episode this case will be closed, and Cohle and Hart’s story finished. People are questioning whether it will suffer as a result, but essentially the format will remain the same – and this is what gives the show the added edge against the competition. As opposed to other popular programmes, Pizzolatto has penned every single episode of the first season, and will continue this practice into the future. He has also employed the firm hand of director and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga for all eight. This has ensured a continuity in quality that may not be present in other shows – essentially the components that add up to make the finished product will remain the same and viewers will be less likely to see a dip in quality or an aversion from the established tone. Breaking Bad, as glorious and well-loved as it was, suffered from this on one occasion. The episode Fly slowed the tempo of the show to a sudden halt and though Rian Johnson is a terrific director in his own right, his input at this point in Heisenberg’s story was somewhat off-key (of course, we forgave him after Ozymandias aired last year). Rest assured, the two-week respite from True Detective has only strengthened its grasp on the viewing audience, as the internet and minds race with clues, guesswork and rumours. We’re not even at the halfway stage and we’ve fallen deeper into the psyche of Cohle and Hart than Alice did down the rabbit-hole. With a tight script, powerhouse performances and writer and director working in unison in the long-term, we can expect great things for the rest of the show, and more of the same in the coming years. Oh yes, True Detective is most certainly a game changer.
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