Non-Geek TV From The Geek Perspective: True Detective (Season One)

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There’s a lot of TV out there, and sometimes a really promising series has a fantastic first year only to drive folks away afterwards with a less interesting follow-up.

Jimmy Impossible already covered season two while I was away on vacation, so here’s a special Non-Geek TV review of the first season–and only the first season–of True Detective.

true-detective-harrelson-mcconaughey-610x348What’s the premise?

Each season was meant to be one self-contained mystery, set in different places with different characters acting as investigators.

What’s the appeal?

That one season, self-contained thing?  That means the show was able to attract top talent normally reserved for motion pictures.  Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson?  On a TV series?  And it isn’t some old episode of Cheers that had a pre-fame McConaughey lounging around the bar?*  What’s not to grab a curious viewer’s attention?  Plus, the series is on HBO, so they can get away with a lot of things normal broadcast and even basic cable can’t do.

*No such episode of Cheers exists.

Anything stand out?

Plenty.

McConaughey is brilliant and mesmerizing as Detective Rust Cohle, former Texas vice cop turned Louisiana homicide detective.  McConaughey was a damaged man even before he took the case, and it shows in his performance.  The series flashes back and forth through time as Rust and Harrelson’s Marty Hart are interrogated over a murder they had investigated and, as far as most people are aware, solved over a decade earlier.  Neither man is stupid, though, so they both figure out before too long that they’re being asked.  If you are completely unhooked by the narrative when McConaughey asks the question he asks at the end of the first episode, you’re probably not going to get into this one too much.

Harrelson also shines as a more “normal” guy.  There’s nothing particularly eccentric about Marty Hart, but that doesn’t make his life any more or less tragic.  Hart’s the family man who doesn’t initially realize what a hypocrite he is, and how his own personal BS is ruining the good thing he has at home.

Jimmy knocked the writing for season two, but the funny thing is, both seasons were written entirely by series creator Nic Pizzolatto.  The script really shines here, but that may have more to do with the actors using his words than the actual words themselves.

Adding to the unity is how all eight episodes were directed by the same man, Cary Fukunaga.  That just about never happens in television, and indeed didn’t even happen in season two of True Detective.  Fukunaga has a knack for creating the proper mood and tension no matter the scene or the setting.  Tense interviews, empty stretches of abandoned rural landscapes, and one really fantastic single tracking shot as Rust and a biker he’s hoping to interrogate avoid a massive riot breaking out around them.

Even the opening credits are sufficiently creepy.  I find HBO has some of the best opening credit sequences going for a lot of its original programming, but the haunting song over the credits for season one has the right mix of moodsetter and earworm to really make the show something else.

Any downsides?

For a show with a running subtext on how badly men treat women, female characters sure are treated poorly on this show.  Michelle Monaghan as Marty’s wife Maggie has the most character given, but most women are little better than two dimensional characters at best.  Though, to be fair, the same is true for every male character that isn’t Rust or Marty.

Season one of True Detective might also give the viewer the impression that there’s something supernatural going on.  There isn’t  Whether that’s a deal-breaker or not I would not say.

I’ll also say that as good as the show is/was, the series is little better than a standard cop show with very high production values and a top notch cast.  I loved it, but that’s what it is.

BONUS:  Did you know True Detective based the first season on a real case from Louisiana?  See the clip below from Vice.

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