Judge Daryl Loomis was born in Carcosa.
Touch darkness and darkness touches you back.
If HBO's True Detective isn't the most entertaining program of 2014, it almost certainly will prove to be the very best thing to air on television this year. The brainchild of crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto, this is brilliant, brutal programming that is greater than the sum of its parts. Over eight episodes, Pizzolatto and his expert team do crime storytelling right, creating a world that is as satisfying as it is devastating.
Facts of the Case
In 1995, a young prostitute is found dead in the fields outside of Erath, Louisiana, tied up and posed against a tree in ritualized fashion. State Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland) and Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaghey, Mud) are brought in to investigate, sparking the case that would prove to make and destroy both their careers and their lives.
It's now 2012 and the pair is brought for separate interviews to recount the story of the investigation. They are told that it's to recover information lost in a recent hurricane, but Cohle knows that, despite having closed the case, a new victim has turned up outside of St. Charles with very similar characteristics. Underneath all of that, the police have some very serious questions about why Cohle disappeared for over a decade.
While the roots of True Detective are grounded in how well Pizzolatto tells his story, the extraordinary success of the show is truly a team effort. Unlike most television shows, where writers and directors are shuffled around episode to episode, this one features the same core group throughout the season, giving it a consistent look and feel that makes it all the more complete.
But what a grim, dark journey Pizzolatto has created. I don't know that I've ever watched something so bleak on television before. Though I couldn't have more respect and admiration for what they've done, there's no way I could claim that True Detective is fun to watch. On the contrary, it's a backbreaking show, something that is in rare company for me. To my memory, the only other thing that I've ever watched that makes me feel this sad or empty, that makes me question my emotional endurance for this stuff, is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Both are things that take a good long look into the abyss and, as they say, the abyss definitely takes a good long look back into you.
Without spoiling anything, though, I will say that, for all that darkness, there are moments of light speckled throughout the season, all of which comes to a head in the very final minutes. It's something that could have been badly botched, but it comes off perfectly natural, without seeming cloying or ham-handed. That's the result of everything that gets built beforehand, not just in the writing, but in every facet of the program.
Most obviously, this begins with the masterful character work by the two leads. Matthew McConaghey has the choice role in Rust Cohle and he's rightly gotten the bulk of the attention for his incredible work, but he would be completely inaccessible without Woody Harrelson, who is equally fantastic as Marty Hart. The names of Hart and Cohle are no coincidence, as they are the two sides of one consciousness having a conversation in a car. Harrelson grounds the story in his flawed humanity, allowing McConaghey to become one walking existential crisis. The most important thing, though, is that unlike your Don Drapers and Walter Whites, there's no glorification of Hart and Cohle. Both are deeply screwed up people, nobody anybody should want to be in a situation nobody would want to experience, and it's all shown warts and all.
Because the story is told from the dual perspectives of Hart and Cohle, the side characters are absolutely not as sharply drawn. Each only exists for a particular purpose in the one of their lives, with nothing beneath the surface at any point. The exception is Michelle Monaghan (Expecting) as Hart's wife, Maggie; she throws around some pretty weighty stuff and does a great job, but she still doesn't have anything to do that doesn't directly involve the detectives. The performances are good across the board, but any depth is stunted by the heavy focus on the leads.
Two things that do become bigger characters than any of the supporting player are the locations and the music. As with the writing, all eight episodes were directed by Cary Fukunaga (2011's Jane Eyre) and photographed by Adam Arkapaw (Snowtown). While beautifully realizing the dark vision of the writing, they turn South Louisiana into a living, breathing monster, as frightening as anything that the characters bring. Fukunaga and Arkapaw get everything over with a relative minimum of violence, with the really messed up stuff happening mostly off camera. When they want to show off, though, they most certainly can, such as the six minute sustained raid-gone-wrong in Episode 4 that is a sensational piece of camerawork and choreography.
Equally brilliant is the music, written and supervised by T-Bone Burnett, pretty much the go-to guy for this kind of thing. His background music melds perfectly with the image to create this uncanny feeling of doom. Episodes are then capped off with Burnett's musical selections, which pound home the emotion of the story every time. My favorite is the use of Townes Van Zandt's "Lungs," which begins with the lyric, "Won't you lend your lungs to me, mine are collapsing," and you know that that isn't the bleakest thing heard in the episode.
It all comes together in a nice three-disc Blu-ray package from HBO. The 1.78:1/1080p image transfer is as gorgeous as expected, looking as nice as it did at broadcast. Colors are nicely saturated and black levels are very deep, while still maintaining the fine detail in even the darkest scenes, serving as a great platform for all this amazing photography.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is excellent, as well, with dialog always sounding bright and clear, music coming through very nicely filling out the mix, and sound effects distributed cleanly and effectively in all speakers.
Extras aren't as numerous as I had hoped, but everything included on each disc is strong.
* Each episode is accompanied by a short featurette called "Inside the Episode," which gets comments from Pizzolatto and company about their intentions and thoughts about each installment. Short, but informative.
* More of this in Making True Detective, a fifteen-minute, more in-depth look at the series as a whole, getting comments from pretty much everybody involved.
* Audio commentaries were recorded for Episodes 4 and 6 only, which is a little disappointing, I suppose. Each features Pizzolatto, Burnett, and Executive Producer Scott Stephens and is informative and extremely interesting. Commentaries on all eight might have gotten a little tiresome, but only two seems a little short.
* "Up Close" with McConaghey and Harrelson is a simple conversation that delivers a lot more details from the actors' perspectives. They're both intelligent and funny people, plus friends in real life, so it's pretty enjoyable.
* A conversation between Pizzolatto and Burnett is the same basic idea, but talking on some similar points discussed in their commentaries. Again, good stuff.
* A few deleted scenes, clearly eliminated for pacing purposes.
We'll see what kind of legs Nic Pizzolatto's project has as it extends into future seasons, but True Detective: Complete First Season is one of the very best eight hours of sustained television I've ever seen. It's a true team effort, with expert work coming at the audience from every direction. This is the way crime fiction should be done, with all the grimness and messy ambiguity that mark the genre. Even if I can't call it entertaining in the strictest sense, I can easily recommend it as great television.
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