HBO made its programs available again on Netflix just as it released True Detective available on DVD far sooner than its previous practice. Once again my clean living and purity of mind pay off.
My impression of True Detective during its run, based on what I read in social media, was it was a groundbreaking series that had viewers shaking their heads in wonder and admiration after each episode. After its eight-week run had ended, I found a more mixed collection of opinions, so I was eager to give it a try.
First, an overarching opinion: I believe the limited duration television series with at least one continuing story arc, used for years by the Brits, is the highest form of visual storytelling. The creators can take the time they need, and only that much, to go as deep into their characters and subject matter as they wish. The Wire was sometimes describes as a “television novel,” but the mold wasn’t broken. It’s still there, and it works. Brilliantly, when done right.
That being said, True Detective is good, often excellent, sometimes brilliant, but uneven asan old mining road. The conceit of the early episodes—modern detectives interviewing Rust Cohle and Marty Hart about a case from seventeen years ago, intercut with scenes of the actual investigation—was brilliant, and well done. Especially successful are scenes where the previous events show how Cohle and Hart lie to the detectives. I have no idea how to do that in a novel and make it half as effective. (There’s also a scene—I think it’s in Episode Four—where Cohle goes undercover and winds up in a stash house robbery gone bad that runs as a single shot for over six minutes. That was filmmaking of a level Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas at the Copa) and Orson Welles (opening to A Touch of Evil) would be proud.)
The acting is uniformly excellent. I have long been a Matthew McConaughey basher, but he’s taken his craft seriously and come a long way. Having seen him in Mud before this, I wasn’t as shocked as I might have been. It’s his performance that carries the series. Woody Harrelson is also excellent; we’ve come to expect that. McConaughey’s Cohle is a fundamentally good man beset by demons; Harrelson’s Hart is an asshole who must find his own redemption. What’s best about True Detective is how their interactions bring this out, building a strong friendship built on an apparent foundation of antagonism.
What throws the show off-kilter are the domestic scenes of the Hart family, and of Marty’s inability to stay faithful to his wife, played by Michelle Monahan, whose talents are largely wasted. While the plot line of trying to include new partner Cohle into Hart’s life works well in spots, most of the Hart family scenes serve to show Martin is an ever-enlarging asshole, and his wife is a vindictive shrew. That’s important to know, as it has implications for the partners’ relationship, but it went on way too long.
Watching the back-and-forth of today’s investigation with the original was fascinating, though the momentum was too often disrupted by the detailed examinations of the Hart family travails. Things really start to roll when the focus shifts to today, as Cohle and Hart take it upon themselves to solve the original case. The ending is pitch perfect, on multiple levels. (Don’t ask. You know I don’t do spoilers. All I’ll say is, David Chase’s idea of a personal hell must be to have to watch the final episodes of True Detective and The Shield for eternity, to show him how not to cop out on an ending.)
Was it worth watching? Absolutely. Did it blow me away? On occasion. Did it leave me with my mouth hanging open in slack-jawed admiration? No. Will I watch it again? Almost certainly, but not for a while. Will I buy it so I can drop it into the player whenever the mood hits me? Probably not.