HBO has certainly got itself a reputation in the last few years for bringing the big screen onto the small screen, whether it’s with films like Behind The Candelabra and The Normal Heart or by getting big name stars to appear in its TV series. With True Detective they lured in Matthew McConaughey (just before he was going to win an Oscar) and Woody Harrelson, as well as Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga, for what the makers have describes as an eight-part cinematic experience.
Although that might sound rather hyperbolic, this time it pretty much lives up to the hype, even if it isn’t the total masterpiece some have suggested.
In 1994 Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) have been newly partnered up when they are sent to investigate a particularly nasty murder which seems to have ritualistic elements. As they look into the girl’s killing the men’s character are uncovered, as well as their violent streaks.
Cohle is a man of unconventional thinking who believes he looks the world in the eye in uncompromising terms, but he is still dealing with the after effects of substance abuse and the loss of his family. Hart meanwhile is outwardly a good man who believes in the rules, but he only believes in them as far as they suit him and how he believes the world should be, particularly in how he believes his family should serve him.
All this is framed by Cohle and Hart being interviewed by other detectives 17 years later, after being asked to consult on a case. It soon becomes clear that it’s not just a consultation as the new detectives suggest that perhaps the serial murderer Cohle and Hart supposedly dealt with years before never actually stopped killing, and they have suspicions about who the real culprit is. Cohle and Hart therefore have to recount what happened at key points in their partnership, most notably the initial investigation in 1994, their falling out in 2002 and what Cohle has been up to since. Then it’s time to deal with unfinished business in the present day.
It’s an incredibly ambitious show and it’s easy to understand why Harrelson and McConaughey would be drawn to do it, as it gives then both meaty characters to chew on. Indeed while the plot might suggest this is just a typical detective show, it’s often more about the people than the case. In fact during the first few episodes there are times when it almost forgets it’s a murder mystery at all.
This is sometimes a bit problematic as the show wants to do so much that in the first few instalments it often starts to gets away from itself. It brings up ideas and thoughts, and darts off in all sorts of different directions. Many of these things seem like they’re going to be important thematic elements, but then it appears to forget about them in all but a minor way. There’s a suggestion in the featurettes that accompany the series that the initial episodes are set up in a way to mimic a real police investigation – leading to dead ends and piecing a story together in a seemingly haphazard way. While that works most of the time for the show – particularly as what Cohle and Hart tell the detective in 2012 isn’t what we see actually happened – there are certain aspects that make things a muddier than they ought to be and which seem like wasted opportunities.
That’s most true of the things that suggest Cohle’s mental state is precarious. These initially seem like a fascinating thematic device, but are pretty much forgotten once they’ve made us wonder how trustworthy the detective really is. By the time it re-emerges at the end it’s a little too late, although it is rather interesting in terms of the suggestions of the occult that run through the show.
There is method in the madness though, as while the early episodes reach all over the place, it allows the series to pull in ever tighter at it goes on, both in terms of the central mystery and with the intriguing characters. And even in those first few instalments it offers more than enough mystery to ensure you’ll want to keep watching, helped a lot by some incredibly impressive performances, not just from McConaughey and Harrelson but also the likes of Michelle Monaghan as Woody’s wife. Indeed, McConaughey may well end up winning both an Oscar and a Best Actor Emmy in the same year.
It’s not a cheery show, and there are moments that are incredibly gritty and unpleasant – as with McConaughey’s character, it’s not afraid to look the worst of humanity in the eye. However it never feels gratuitously nasty. Instead it pulls you in with characters who are flawed and often vicious, but as Cohle at one point says – he doesn’t mind bad men who are upfront about it, as they keep the real nasty pieces of work in check. Initially I was slightly worried this was going to be another slice of Southern Gothic noir where unpleasant things happen just for the sake of being nasty, but there’s always a reason for it, both in terms of plot and theme.
True Detective also looks gorgeous, with a truly cinematic quality that’s really brought out on the Blu-ray. It also benefits from having a decent audio system, as the show’s brooding score and love of unsettling bass will give it a bit of a workout. It all ensures this is a perfect three-disc set for binge viewing, as it definitely helps to watch it in as few sittings as possible. And if you find you have seven hours to spare one day, that’s probably the best way to take it all in.
It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes next, as while initially designed to be a single mini-series, True Detective’s success has ensured HBO wants a Season 2. It’s unlikely the two main stars will be back (although McConaughey says he is open to being involved at some point in the future), so things will have to be rather different in any future instalments. We’ll just have to wait and see how it handles the transition.
Overall Verdict: While not 100% perfect, it’s pretty close. With a central mystery that gets more and more involving as the show goes on, and characters who are almost as fascinating as the case they’re investigating, it’s definitely worth watching.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac