True Detective is dense, but not in the way we necessarily hoped. A great TV series, or at least our preconception of one, is defined by continuously peeling back the layers of character, story and theme throughout its seasonal or entire run. I hold to Mad Men and Breaking Bad as the key examples in this regard because of how superbly they work. They’re not about slyly withheld mysteries being doled out carefully across a season. They’re about the even more monumental shifts in characters over an extended period of time.
True Detective does shoot for the latter appeal, in spite having just eight episodes to dish out its story. Some have done just as well with even less, Top of the Lake being another ideal example. In six hours we cut to the core of its characters and disturbing mythology, all while becoming engrossed in a community in a state of very real change. So when I say True Detective is dense, I mean that in the aggravating way. It’s hard, stubborn, and often frustrating to keep a dialogue going with. In spite taking place across two decades, it’s more about how these Louisiana folk stay the same than how they change.
If anybody gets the importance of that shift, it’s Matthew McConaughey. The man’s seen quite a shift these past few years, in case you haven’t noticed. He’s become incredibly aware of who he is, both personally and in the public mindset, and he’s leveraged that knowledge to great effect in Magic Mike, Killer Joe, most recently his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, and quite a few others. It’s hard not to be caught up in this so-called McConaissance, but let’s not be so enough to lose sight of the exceptional work he’s doing. True Detective is the perfect showcase for that, playing a character whose mannerisms take on such an extreme life of their own that they very nearly override his identity.
Rustin Cohle is the unwavering centerpiece of the show, something everyone is acutely aware of from the word go. He’s plagued by existential notions that make it nearly impossible for him to achieve something close to happiness, and while he might remark to the contrary, some of that inevitably has to do with the loss of his own daughter. His opposite number on the crime beat, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), seems the steady, normal guy by comparison, but in truth may be a greater danger to those around him due to his markedly unpredictable nature. In many ways, since Hart has a family and a sense of personal and professional covetousness, he’s less in control of his emotions, which cause problems both for and between the begrudging duo.
These two men could just be partners and go through life without becoming intertwined, but as is the case with all procedural dramas, the case at hand forces them to become intimate. And that’s where True Detective started losing interest with me, or rather didn’t hook me in the first place. The case at the center feels barely worth acknowledgment beyond the obvious horror. Women being sacrificed with iconography that whiffs of some twisted religion… it’s unsettling, but it’s a problem that I never saw the victims as human beings, only as objects. It’s a problem that the case never became more unsettling as it went on. It’s a problem that it doesn’t feel like the case reverberates through the lives of these characters, even though it does. It feels like there’s just another monster out there.
Enhancing the banality of the stakes is all the legwork of the case, which is admittedly true to real detective work, but feels agonizing in how familiarly it’s doled out in dialogue and visuals. It’s disheartening to see Cary Fukunaga and D.P. Adam Arkapaw be put through such inert visual gestures, rarely conjuring the level of atmospheric flair we expect of either. At least in the first three episodes, after which we thankfully switch gears to something more literally hands-on. The much talked about long take has gained its notoriety for a reason. It’s an engrossing and captivating moment in a show that’s struggled to keep our attention through some tedious investigative work. It’s the moment these characters stop drifting and become irrevocably tied to the case at hand.
While remaining mum on the details of its latter-half, the show switches gears to focusing more on the decline of these characters of a personal perspective. As time marches on, some things stick in both of the men’s lives that breaks the sense of order they once had. Though order and chaos is one of the binaries writer Nic Pizzolatto is in heady existential argument with, order is exhaustively developed as a masculine trait, particularly in regards to Hart’s character. He’s conflicted and hypocritical about how he treats women, but that the women aren’t as complexly developed is an issue. It causes Michelle Monaghan’s character, a pretty blank and predictable housewife, to stoop to very masculine lows to achieve her own peace of mind.
True Detective has set itself up as an anthology series, meaning that Pizzolatto can entire stories over the course of one season without the burden of maintaining it over years. Those seams show visibly as the season reaches it’s final stretches and heads into redemptive territory, a default mode of television that feels more like a crutch of the medium than the way the story would organically flow. In spite iconography reminiscent of Twin Peaks, Fukunaga and Pizzolatto never quite pull us down the rabbit hole they tease us with.
It’s to McConaughey’s credits that he holds our unwavering focus throughout, be it in his younger, confident days, approaching tortured middle-age, or feeling the weight of his years pull away at his loose threads. In some way he’s lucky to have the one truly fascinating character of the series, but for us to keep engrossed, the whole world they create must be just as enticing. As promising an approach as it was to have Fukunaga direct the entire season, it feels more like his command is being stretched thin by the demands of the job than the show being brought to cohesion under his vision. Having a unifying vision is important, but as many a functional ongoing series will attest, it helps to share the burden, particularly for a show this immensely burdened with ideas it can’t quite pierce beyond the surface, and revelations that aren’t always so revealing. A long bright dark, indeed.