I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do it’s mostly HBO shows. For those living outside of the US: HBO is an American cable television network which produces some of the best series on TV. It’s almost like the Criterion Collection of TV shows in terms of quality. If you’re anything like me however regardless of all the hype surrounding a show you might need a little bit of convincing to start watching it. I decided to check out True Detective, because I heard that Cary Joji Fukunaga directed every episode of Season 1.
I’m also an admirer of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey‘s work, both very talented actors and like I said I tend to enjoy HBO shows. Turns out however that the show had much more to offer than what I already expected to be great about it. In true Criterion fashion and without spoiling any of the central plot points I’ll discuss three of my favorite things about True Detective and will hopefully manage to convince some non-believers to watch this great show created by American novelist and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto.
Reason I: Cinematic Directing
Young and gifted director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) brings his own style and sensibilities to the small screen with his first foray into television. The results are astounding and beautiful. True Detective distinguishes itself not only visually, but on every other technical level of its mise en scène. It’s hard to explain, but while watching the show it doesn’t feel like your watching TV: It’s a cinematic experience. Every episode is wholly engrossing and captivating from start to finish.
Nic Pizzolatto‘s writing, which I’ll discuss in more depth later, is a big part of what makes True Detective such a great show. Aside from that however it really is a director’s series. Everything works together so cohesively and coherently. That is probably because the series and the story were planned out and it is one guy directing each episode giving the show more consistency. Adam Arkapaw (The Snowtown Murders, Lore) is responsible for the show’s superior aesthetic. It’s his first time photographing a television show.
The show’s excellent musical score is courtesy no one other than T Bone Burnett. While three different people are credited for the editing it feels seamless. The editing during the obligatory Previously on… segment is ridiculous and stupid as ever, but that’s a standard of TV series I guess. Other than that I’d like to mention the show’s great production design and set decoration as well as the realistic and true to life costumes and hair & makeup. Too many people to list here, but great job everybody!
Reason II: Intriguing Characters
True Detective is definitely a character driven show. The characters are the center of the piece, even more so than the actual case they’re investigating. I was surprised to be more fascinated by Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) than the plot about the serial killer and all the conspiracy theories. It is a testament to Nic Pizzolatto’s great writing, but it is also largely because McConaughey and Harrelson are both fantastic actors. I wanted to get to know them better, spend more time with them.
Rust is especially intriguing, because he’s so unusual and has all these crazy ideas and weird philosophies he can’t shut up about. The dynamic between him and Harrelson’s character may seem cliché, the two cops that don’t get along, however it feels organic because of the way in which Pizzolatto and Fukunaga chose to portray it. Sometimes they hate each other, but there’s also a mutual admiration and respect. Marty is quite interesting himself, he’s the opposite of Rust in a lot of ways, and yet they also have a lot in common, namely their obsessive personalities.
A third character I really fell in love with was Maggie Hart, played by the wonderful Michelle Monaghan. Now of course, it’s easy for her to be overshadowed by the two leads, but she brings a lot of nuance and genuine emotion to her part. Of course she is also incredibly beautiful. It’s also great to see other well known actors in minor roles pop up here and there. In every episode you learn something new about the characters. Pizzolatto just keeps adding depth and layers to the character’s personality, but they never become caricatures of themselves.
Reason III: Compelling Storytelling
As I’ve mentioned the case is secondary: The characters are center stage. What’s also interesting are the ideas they discuss. The themes of this show are so wast, deep and big that it’s overwhelming sometimes. Rust’s talks about the universe, the meaning of life and existence. Sometimes it feels almost too much, because who talks about such important things at all times? Pizzolatto’s writing is almost too smart, but you can see that both he and the director seem to identify particularly with Rust. I see McConaughey as more handsome version of Fukunaga.
The show (I keep writing film) also finds time for contemplation. Fukunaga shoots the beautiful, but dangerous nature of Louisiana. It does get a little bleak, moody and maybe even depressing at times, but the show makes you think a lot. In one episode Rust discusses how he believes that there is a certain peacefulness in the moment of dying. It’s intense. When there is action, it is however as competently and confidently executed as when there’s straight up drama. Fukunaga balances and directs both very well.
Another thing I appreciated about True Detective is that while it would be definitely R rated, if it were a movie, it never becomes exploitative or dark for the sake of being dark. Everything that happens is in the service of the story and the characters. Multiple times the show presents us with story lines or characters archetypes that seem familiar, but each time through Pizzolatto’s writing it feels fresh and new. In the hands of a less capable writer/director duo this show could have been just another cop procedural, but the two elevate it to the most spectacular storytelling.
Those are my three reasons. What are yours?