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.