Monday, March 3, 2014

True Detective: A Recommendation

They say that television is the new cinema. They're wrong, but True Detective is just about the best piece of evidence they have in their favour.

For one, it stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, two actors best known for their big screen appearances. The latter is enjoying something of a renaissance, what with The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club as recent stellar additions to a chequered filmography. This is in fact one renaissance I fully believe in, unlike that Affleckian one that has the world hoodwinked. (The Town was rubbish, people, rubbish!)

For another, it looks like a film. Some of the landscape shots are glorious, as if they were lifted from the cutting room floor of The New World.

None of this is too surprising, mind you, given that the show is an HBO production. Cinematic television is the name of their game. But this feels like a raising of the stakes.

If I was to compare True Detective to anything, I would compare it to my two favourite creations for the screen, big and small: Heat and The Wire. Indeed it is something of a mash up of the two. That said, True Detective is not as good as either, insofar as it's fair to compare a television show with a film, and another television show with The Wire. But seeing it in the light of these two giants does not diminish it. It is well capable of having its say, and with a rural setting and multiple time periods it adds a different dimension to what has gone before. Moreover, in McConaughey it has an actor at the top of his game playing a character that is as mysterious as he is compelling. He appears deeply odd, yet somehow in line with the grain of the universe. Or at least the grain as it is depicted in the show. IT is worth tuning for him alone.

The story itself is based around a serial killer, and the two detectives who are tasked with finding him. This is no ordinary, run of the mill serial killer, however, but a highly liturgical one. The initial murder scene is like a form of iconography, with various religious symbols and artefacts making their presence felt. In this way the hunt for the killer is as much a hunt for meaning as it is justice. As the show delves into the depths of its characters, it is not only the whodunnit, but the why that matters. Is there meaning in this world? Or should we all just walk hand in hand off the face of the cliff, as Rust (McConaughey) suggests, sparing any future generation the misery of humanness?

The dialogue, I should warn you, often moves into this heavy terrain, and it times it is overbearing. But the more you learn about the characters, the more organic the heaviness feels, and the more you feel it too. This is not just a clever novelist (Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and sole writer of the show) showing us how much he knows about nihilism, though there is a touch of that. This is the expression of tortured souls who live in the what Flannery O'Connor termed the "Christ-haunted" South. Indeed it comes as no surprise that Pizzolatto was born in Louisiana, where the action is both set and filmed.

To sum, if you are looking for a TV show, and haven't watched The Wire for a second time, then I recommend giving True Detective a go, provided you have the stomach for it.


  1. Boom! I came here today in the hope of reading something like this. Glad to know you're watching, as I feel like (facebook-less life that I have) I am the only one.
    I've watched an episode a night now since last Thursday and have one left before I have to wait until Sun/Mon to complete. Argh! When do I watch it?? Tonight, and wait for ages, or in a few days and wait a couple of days either side, or watch it on Sunday and only wait for a bit... I can't make my mind up.

    You're spot on about a lot here, except you're underselling it Declan. It is magnificent.

    If this mesh of TV, cinema and mini-series is where we are headed then God bless the Yellow King. I'm on board. I'd give it Mad Men qualities though, for it's existentialist qualities and the general feeling of unease you get knowing that no matter what, no one will remain happy for any given period time, but I'm feeling you on The Wire and Heat.

    Also, lovely to stick it to Ben Affleck. I still remember watching the Town with you. We should do a Gone Baby Gone, Town and Argo marathon some day. Maybe mic ourselves up and sell tickets. People should know...

  2. Woah, just used 'qualities' twice in six words.

    Sincerest apologies.

  3. I've read that there are all sorts of connections with some pulp detective genre, but I have no idea about that. What I do know is that this show is only possible because of Heat and The Wire. Heat, for its attention to the relationship between Man and Profession. The Wire, for its unapologetic dialogue and magnificent portrait of a particular place. I didn't mention it, but it also owes a big debt to Se7en, both in terms of tone and content.

    I had your dilemma. I chose to watch, and now I have to wait. If I were you, I'd wait until the last one is released and then watch them back to back or a day apart (in order to digest). The wait from 6 to 7 will be much more bearable than the one from 7 to 8.

    I have read some very interesting analyses online too, pointing out stuff that I have completely missed. Stuff that was right there all along. I think you're right - whatever else, we won't be getting a happy ending. Given the case at hand, happiness would be an insult to the undeniable tragedy that surrounds the detectives.

  4. I can't do it. Gonna watch ep 7 now. Email me some of these interpretations. Keen to read. Also, look out for a book called Difficult Men. Found it in Charlie Byrne's over Christmas. Great read.