If you look at the clues—a somber detective drama, the creative backing of HBO, a beautiful trailer and the union of two wonderfully hard-bitten actors in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson—True Detective looked like a winner from the beginning.
Which made me nervous, because it’s never quite that simple. Television success tends to work in opposition to Tolstoy’s famous quote about families; the good ones all work for different, mysterious reasons, and the bad ones fail—and by fail I mean “fail artistically,” as opposed to “get canceled due to factors outside their control”— because of weak writing. So when HBO sent a wooden totem called a “Devil Net” to the Paste offices (and many others) in a box marked with fake police storage labels, I began to get suspicious. This, I thought, could be the kind of show that put the cart—creative promotion, huge stars, a compelling atmosphere—before the horse. To flog the metaphor, the horse is the dramatic sine qua non, without which no show can survive, and whose absence makes even the sharpest actors look flaccid on screen: writing.
Spoiler: I was wrong. After one episode, True Detective already stands out as somehow greater than the sum of its impressive parts. It’s the kind of show that makes me wish I wasn’t reviewing it, because it’s almost too difficult to watch one episode at a time. I want to binge, and I want to binge badly, and my God, I have to wait until Sunday for the next episode?
We’ll get to what makes this show great in a moment. First, let me tell you why the few bad reviews are wrong.
Incorrect Concept No. 1: “The ominous atmosphere is stifling rather than intriguing.”
Wrong. Insofar as an opinion can be wrong, anyway. This is an impressionistic show, to be sure, more Top of the Lake than The Wire. But logic still governs the narrative; it’s not like we’re dealing with Twin Peaks here. We’re tethered to reality, even as spiritual elements populate the ether. And while critics fell all over themselves to congratulate Top of the Lake (with good reason), it’s practically hypocritical to take True Detective to task for committing to a similarly dense, dark miasma. The fact is, it works. This is poor, depressed Louisiana at its least appealing, the kind of desperate place that could produce a serial killer.
Incorrect Concept No. 2: “The dialogue is full of whiny philosophy, like a college freshman who just learned about Nietzsche.”
Wrong again. One on hand, Detective Rusty Cohle (McConaughey) does indeed sound, at times, like that scary kid you knew in school who wore a black trench coat and never smiled. The dialogue that emerges (“we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” and ”[mankind should] walk hand-in-hand to extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal” and “it’s all one ghetto, man…a giant gutter in outer space”) will look overwrought on the page, but critics who cite this as a negative are completely ignoring the context. Yes, Cohle is negative, a philosophical pessimist, and he has the odd idea that human beings are overly self-aware “creatures that should not exist.” But this is a CHARACTER! These are the words of a social misfit whose young daughter died, and who can barely tolerate going to his partner’s house for dinner. None of the other characters speak this way; it’s not the worldview of the show. Criticizing True Detective for making one of its characters extreme is like slamming Cervantes as an “insane writer” because Don Quixote fought windmills. It misses the bigger picture. True Detective isn’t some boring Jim Jarmusch snooze-fest that sacrifices interest at the altar of style; it paints a picture of a real world, and whatever exaggerations it employs are in service of the story, not the ego of an auteur.
Now, enough negativity. Why did the pilot episode, “The Long Bright Dark,” succeed so completely?
Let’s start with the performances. The transformation of Matthew McConaughey, I’m happy to report, seems permanent. We can forget the previous, somewhat obnoxious incarnation that flitted from romcom to romcom smiling and looking devilishly handsome. The McConaughey of the present is a gritty, humanistic, badass actor, one who deserved every bit of that Best Actor Golden Globe he won last night, and one whose gaunt, flinty-hard presence makes the transition to Louisiana detective beautifully. He lives in an apartment with no furniture, like the hero in Melville’s Le Samourai, and without a family or any friends (or the constitution to commit suicide, as he admits), his one mission is his job. Among the very few personal effects in his spartan home are a series of books on the sexual crimes of serial killers. Cohle, like McConaughey, is committed, but he’s not a contrivance; there’s a demon that threatens to bring him down at any moment, and that demon is alcohol.
Then there’s Woody Harrelson, another surprising late-bloomer whose journey from playboy to an actor with weight has been less public, but equally profound. We knew he had the chops to play a sad, hard-luck character (I realize I keep using the word “hard,” but it keeps fitting) as far back as 1996’s Kingpin, but it wasn’t until 2009’s spectacular The Messenger that the potential of his career’s second act became clear. He’s less of a tragic figure as Detective Martin Hart—cast with McConaughey, he’s the stable one—but his gravity is no less forceful on screen. Hart is a counterbalance to Cohle, but a savvy one; we know he’s looking out for himself first.
The dynamic between the two men, which stirred up some pretty high hopes, meets (possibly exceeds?) expectation. They work well together, but they’re each suspicious of how the other operates. They both suspect the other is missing the point, and they’re both right. And they can be really, really funny, as in this exchange:
Hart: So, what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?
Cohle: I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.
Hart: My luck, I picked today to get to know you. Three months, I don’t hear a word from you and—
Cohle: You asked.
Hart: Yeah. And now I’m begging for you to shut the fuck up.
Cohle: I get a bad taste in my mouth out here. Aluminum. Ash. I can smell a psycho’s fear.
Hart: I got an idea. Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection from now on. Okay?
And that dialogue demonstrates another reason why it’s foolish to complain about McConaughey’s diatribes; they’re meant to establish character, yes, but to a great extent they’re also meant to sound ridiculous. His outlook is not the outlook of the greater show.
Oh, and the plot: The action in the pilot shifts between 1995, when a ritual killing is discovered by a tree in the cane fields (a woman had been tied up, stabbed and crowned with a pair of deer antlers) and the present, when both Hart and Cohle, now out of the police force, are being questioned about the investigation. Alone, years later, the two are faded and practical. Together, in ‘95, they’re resplendent. I won’t spoil the intense ending, which will become the engine for this eight-episode season, except to say that it features McConaughey at his most vital. In the industrial light of an interview room, we leave on a note of pure anticipation. With the recent and impending departure of so many powerhouse dramas, this may be television’s next great offering.