Jan 13, 2014

True Detective: “The Long Bright Dark”

By Josh Oakley

There’s enough murder on TV. The Golden Age of television has seen death and darkness everywhere, from Baltimore to the ABQ. Last year saw an influx of imitators to the throne, programs that knew only how to break bad on the surface. There’s little depth to something like House of Cards or Ray Donovan, only glimpses of the anti-heroes and genre trappings used elsewhere to rich effect. True Detective is a weightier story, one that largely jettisons the villain-as-protagonist model and bounces around large ideas about god and ghosts. But after only one episode it’s difficult to determine if the series will continue to dive or come up for shallow breaths.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson star as detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. The show pivots between 1995, when the two became partners, and 2012, a decade after their falling out. Hints of events are littered throughout the latter timeline, most importantly at the end of “The Long Bright Dark”, when Cohle, grizzled by age and Lone Star beer, reveals the conclusion of the ’95 case. That case involves a woman stripped and adorned with antlers, murdered in a field of sugar cane. The scene of the crime resembles the great NBC drama Hannibal, which does the show few favors, even though the two differ quite significantly. Hannibal is more concerned with the suffocation of murder, the way the mind warps around prolonged exposure to tragedy. In True Detective, it seems that that emotional baggage has already infected Hart and Cohle, and this mystery is merely a way of stringing out what’s buried within them.

One piece of that backstory concerns Cohle’s late daughter, a fact he only reveals to Hart’s wife (Michelle Monaghan) in the episode’s best scene. There’s a divide between the two cops, even in 1995, and the statements they give in 2012 hint that the wall only grows thicker with time. Their relationship seems to be the core of the show, especially in the context of Hart’s reactions to his partner’s philosophizing. Cohle spouts off about the fact that humans should have never gained sentience, and whether he’s a realist or a pessimist. It’s within these interactions that the show’s writing flourishes (all eight episodes were scribed by crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto). The best example of this: “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading.” The declaration pisses off Hart, but it’s a beautiful sentiment, perfectly summarizing how director Cary Fukunage (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) captures the decay of rural Louisiana.

Much of Cohle’s dictations only tangentially tie in to the events surrounding them. His speech on the programming of humanity could concern the mindset of a murderer, or the way these two men interact with each other and the world around them. But at least it’s entertaining, and shifts the focus of True Detective onto the characters, rather than yet another exploration of what it means to be a serial killer. And these are two fascinating performances, filling in the gaps of character that first episodes can’t always get to. Harrelson is ostensibly the straight man, given a good deal of “oh, brother” material that he has to sell without getting tiring. He is, of course, up to the job, making exhaustion feel inspired. We’re only given hints of the darker pieces of his life, seen best in his waking up in an armchair rather than his bed.

But this is McConaughey’s show, at least for now. The man has been on a comeback tour since 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, one that crystalized in the 1-2-3 punch of Mud, Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyer’s Club last year. Now that he’s proven himself one of the most vital actors working today, he shows yet another angle of the character he originated in Dazed and Confused. Cohle is an older, more pained Wooderson, a variation that went through the loss of a child and a divorce and became a bit too interested in the world of sex crimes and murder. His brain is frayed, even in the 1995 material, and the flashes to 2012 are numbing. Whatever happens over the intervening seventeen years will seemingly screw the man up even more, which hardly seems possible after the aforementioned dinner scene. McConaughey imbues his character’s proselytizing with a heaviness, so what could seem like hippie-parody becomes an obvious shield against the world. McConaughey is also able to tie the chatty, frenzied Cohle in with the quiet, measured one that populates crime scenes and his home. They seem two halves an irreparably broken whole.

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, one that promises deep wells of sadness for the characters ahead. The framing device of the show, with the detectives interviewed in 2012 about a murder that resembles the one they solved in ’95, both adds to and detracts from the show. It helps shade in these characters, and gives a broader look at who they and where they’ll end up. But it also leads to a good deal of unnecessary voiceover, the dirge of any visual artform. When the wheels of True Detective are actively turning, when it’s obvious that the plot mechanics are being manipulated by a writer in a room, the show suffers. But when the wheels of the car are turning, when Cohle and Hart are sitting together and talking about god, there’s an authentic wonder to this show. We may have had our fill of violent television over the past two decades. Perhaps, though, True Detective will something more to say. Or maybe, despite what is already one of the best performances on TV, it’ll just be alright, alright, alright.

Grade: B

  • “One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal” – One of the more poetic lines McConaughey sells beautifully
  • I know the show is more concerned with character than plot, but I am worried that my suspicions may be right and we might be getting a hefty “the cops think Cohle is the killer” story.

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