Review: True Detective, Season 1 (Pizzolatto, 2014)

Still from the TV show True Detective

True Detective‘s creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto is an author of literary fiction turned screenplay writer, normally a good sign for viewers looking for complex characters, interesting dialogue, and compelling plot. Add to the mix the star power of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson playing Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, the critical buzz surrounding the show, the fact that each season is a self-contained story (meaning that you’re guaranteed not to suffer that phenomenon of a show that starts out well but is a victim of its own success, dragging on long past the loyalty of all but the most die-hard viewers), and you’ve created quite an intriguing proposition for someone like me.

Alas.

True Detective takes place in the stark, romantic, menacing beauty of the Louisiana bayou. The two aforementioned detectives track a homicide case of a woman who appears to be the victim of a Satan-worshiping serial murderer. Newly partnered, Cohle and Hart are also trying to figure each other out–or, rather, Hart is trying to figure out the mystically eccentric Cohle while Cohle likely has Hart pegged on first sight. Sometimes their interactions tend to feel like a Laurel and Hardy comedy act, hamming it up a little too much, but in general it’s a pleasure to witness a character with Cohle’s peculiar blend of contemplation, certainty, righteousness, and cynicism. Hart, on the other hand, is not much more than Cohle’s sounding board–just that bland and ordinary.

The show is split into two emotionally distinct parts–the crime-solving story and the personal story. Sometimes the crime-solving part has a CSI feel to it, but is, from a plot perspective, less suspenseful and satisfying. The personal story extends beyond the relationship between Rust and Marty to include Marty’s (and sometimes Rust’s) interactions with Marty’s family–that is, his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and two daughters. While the partner relationship could be easily integrated into the crime-solving plot line, the family portion feels like a distraction, and not even that interesting of one. Ultimately, the dual focus dilutes the narrative, giving the impression of much ado about nothing.

But perhaps what is so attractive about this show is how steeped it is in the culture of that area, the Louisiana bayou, that area that seems to have captured our collective imaginations. That most irreal Southern Gothic blend of the mystical, the brutal, the strange, the darkly beautiful, popularized on one side by the likes of Anne Rice and True Blood and on the other by Beasts of the Southern Wild and (for those who remember) The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Watched late at night with all the lights off, I was afraid to leave my room afterward, afraid not only of the “bad men” that police officers typically fight but of something more insidious, insubstantial, a slow, creeping evil, though “evil” is not even a word I like or usually use. Add to that Cohle’s nihilistic ramblings–odd phrases that rang in my dreams–and I was pretty much useless for anything but huddling under the covers.

I said “alas” earlier, though, because True Detective didn’t quite live up to the hype. Watching the detectives pursue these satanic killings, I thought to myself how often the show pandered to our collective expectations. We have an expectation of that kind of evil. It was that expectation that put three innocent teenage boys in jail for several decades in West Memphis. And murders can’t be ordinary murders but they must also have a conspiracy behind them, tied to the most important people in the community, no, the state! And Marty, his wife, his family–they are familiar types, enacting familiar breakdowns. Then the dialogue–high on its own drama. It is the dialogue, the heavy words spoken or yelled that feels like the “much ado,” and, in the end, the plot, which feels almost like “nothing.” Even Cohle is very much the invincible hero we’ve come to believe in, supernaturally competent and intelligent and wise, and martially fit to boot. But it is too neat to have someone the audience can rely on so much, the Gandalf or Dumbledore of the adventure. I could also have done without the last sentimental scene, so puppy-rainbow-feel-good, which seemed like the final betrayal of Rust Cohle’s character. What did you do to him, Nic Pizzolatto?

Still, despite all that, it is an at times riveting show. If you’re searching for something to watch, it’s not a bad way to spend your time. But if you have too much to watch, don’t feel too bad about skipping this one.

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