Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Thoughts on HBO's True Detective

     It's not hyperbole (even with my extreme love of all things branded with the HBO logo) to say that True Detective is the best new television show in the past three years (at least). That it came out so shortly after the ending of the epic AMC series Breaking Bad (some argued that when Walt went away, the Golden Age of T.V. would bite the dust too) is even more impressive: you'd think there would be a lull in such frightening, tension-slathered entertainment.

The story of Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Det. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and their efforts to catch a potential serial killer is halfway through its opening season. There are only 8 episodes--this is a blessing and a curse: of course we, the viewers, want to see as much as possible of this incredible entertainment (especially when such trash gets upwards of twenty episodes a season on network television), but we all know quality is far more important in the game of premium networks. A short season of 8 episodes allows the story to keep on track and the tension to stay as high as Rust on a coke binge.

You're actually not going to see better performances on a television show this year. I'm confident of that. I was originally excited to see Woody Harrelson sink his teeth into a dramatic role, especially one on a no-holds-barred network like HBO. And no doubt he's a force--his inner struggles with balancing his family and the investigation is never more apparent when he lashes after a few drinks. His interaction with Cohle is even better: you can almost taste the annoyance and occasional hatred that the two feel for one another. But McConaughey as Cohle is a straight-up revelation. Most know to take him serious lately (after Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, etc.), but in True Detective (after only four episodes) he is showing us one of his best performances of his entire career. The show is split between 1995 (when the detectives are working the case) and 17 years later, when the former partners are being interviewed separately by two other detectives. The contrast between the two time periods is made most apparent McConaghey's skill of showing a broken-down man with plenty to hide.

Plenty of shows in recent years have explored the "who-dunnit" narrative structure: giving you plenty of red herrings and false-plot twists to cliffhanger you into watching the next episode (like AMC's The Killing, which I enjoyed enough). And True Detective has plenty of intense twists and turns that demand to be seen before they're discussed at the water cooler (or email chain) come Monday morning. Everyone has their own theory about what character is involved, what metaphors are pointing you in whoever's direction, and what specific symbolism makes you scream, "The killer is most definitely that dude!" But what sets True Detective apart is the fact that it doesn't especially matter who the killer is. Sure, it will be exciting to finally found out: but--like many great novels--it's Cohle and Hart's journey and change that truly matters.

True Detective, like a few great shows--The Sopranos, Breaking Bad--before it, expertly blends (and sometimes erases) the line between film and television. Episode 4, in particular, really made you realize this. The show this past Sunday (it airs at 9pm EST) finished with a 6-minute tracking shot with no camera cuts through an action-packed and dangerous housing complex. It was one of those wow moments that is extremely rare in television. It instantly brought to mind some of Alfonso Cuaron's best moments in the modern classic Children of Men. It's barely an exaggeration: True Detective gives you the reasons to confidently say that you're witnessing something rare and special. It helps that all 8 episodes were directed by one person (Cary Fukunaga, who directed 2011's film Jane Eyre) and written by one person (newcomer Nic Pizzolatto). It maintains a constant thread of awesomeness.

Now is the time to catch up! If you love great drama television, buy HBO for a month or "borrow" an HBO GO password (not mine) and spend 4 hours with it by this Sunday night. You won't regret it. Time is of the essence, because Rust and Marty's story ends in a little over 4 weeks. True Detective is pulling a similar strategy as FX's American Horror Story: every season (though it hasn't been renewed for a second season yet, it's nearly inevitable) is going to contain a new story with new characters and actors. It's not going to pull a Killing and barely reveal anything through 20 episodes. Shit has already gotten real, and there are only 4 episodes left. Get on it, and watch True Detective before your friends have asked, "Have you seen True Detective?!?"

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