I am not as experienced in television criticism as I am in film, but I think I can still outdo the bulk of the schmucks that currently write about shows today. One in particular caught my eye very briefly on Sunday, I read the first paragraph then abruptly lost interest. It was a syndicated piece from the Sydney Morning Herald in which the writer (I shall never recall their name) poured scorn on season one of True Detective. They wrote something like ‘the inflated egos of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson trying to transition from film to television makes the series practically un-watchable.’ I found the piece practically unreadable. Given that I have just marathoned the first season, it is the perfect time to proffer a deeper review.
First of all, the pairing of McConaughey and Harrelson is a stroke of genius. McConaughey — after his embarrassing turn in Lincoln ads — reminded my potently of why he won an Oscar. For those that have only heard a little about True Detective, McConaughey plays the crazy one. Detective Rustin “Russ” Cohl, the obsessive loner who alienates everyone but is the only person with the brains to crack the case. He is described by one of the supporting characters as having true integrity, and he is always honest with himself. Harrelson plays Detective Martin Hart, a naturally misogynistic alpha man who dearly loves his family but cannot stop himself destroying it. He lives the lie of trying to be a good an honest person while suppressing is darker side.
The two of them are working on a homicide case in 1995 that is drawn out over the next 17 years. The eight episode series is more like a long mini-series than a regular show, and the fact that it is part of the blurred boundary dividing TV and film I think makes having two established film actors as the lead characters a definite advantage. Leave it to a small minded columnist scratching their weak complaints for 5 cents a word into the hide of cinematic art to find that Matthew McConaughey is just too much for them. Gosh, he almost made them spill their nightly sav on the shag carpet with his brooding witticisms they could never come up with themselves. But I digress into another critic stabbing spree, let’s get back to the point.
I believe that creator Nic Pizzolatto originally conceived of True Detective as a novel, but after developing the story he realised it would work better as a television series. I am so glad he took the HBO route instead of adding another brick sized crime paperback to the heaving shelves of airport bookstores. His story would have been lost in the crowd of Grisham, and Lee Child. Instead the fertile soil of cinematic TV gets another handful of seeds to turn into supreme quality drama. The takes are often long, and the dialogue is pregnant with subtext and wit. I could imagine a stage adaptation being well worth trying, and the theatricality of voodoo influences (it’s set in Louisiana) adds an element of corrosion and neglect. The setting, rural, poor, religious southern USA, with its humidity and abandonment, is a compelling place for a crime drama. The stress of the case over the years plays out on the faces of the lead characters, who progressively age and in McConaughey’s case seems to drift closer to the burnt out hill-billies that he looks down on.
Harrowing is a term I think should apply to True Detective, and it’s themes of drugs, child abuse, rape and murder, are not notions to play with nightly. This is not a background TV program where you can zone out after a long day of spiritual decomposition at the office. This is serious drama. It bites, and it hurts. The simplicity of the story following two detectives over the course of years makes gives the opportunity for a lot of nuance, a lot of character development. Harrelson is a serial adulterer with an anachronistic masculinity. He reflects the challenge that masculinity — which was predominant once and may still be albeit it’s heavily suppressed today — encountered in the 90s-2000s shift. He is a thug, but knows that he is and is ashamed. Martin Hart is the character that represents our shifting reality.
McConaughey’s Rust Cohl isn’t like that. Like Sherlock Holmes he is brilliant, eccentric (although in a less showy way), and solitary. One cannot connect with him in the same way as Hart, and Rust is more of the figure outside working his way in, where Hart is in side working his way out. The two therefore achieve something of a synthesis, both in thematic terms as well as dramatic.
I don’t know yet if season 2 works, and it’s ensemble cast makes it a very different show. But unlike the reviewer from the Sydney Morning Herald, I am willing to take the time to warm to it. Great things don’t always hook you straight away, and many poor things invest in a good hook and then depress you with television gruel. Remember that if you can.