True Detective episode 1 review: The Long Bright Dark

Review Michael Noble 13 Jan 2014 - 13:05

Is True Detective the first great new drama of 2014? Here’s Michael’s spoiler-free review.

1.1 The Long Bright Dark

Among the many innovations that The Wire brought to TV was its much-vaunted ‘novelistic structure’. Its creators, David Simon and Ed Burns (who between them had worked as a journalist, a cop and a teacher) admitted that this was intentional, and redoubled their commitment by hiring actual novelists to sit on the production and writing staff. One of those novelists, Dennis Lehane, has since moved on to write for Boardwalk Empire, again alongside other authors. Elsewhere, the reason for Deadwood’s distinctively poetic language lies in the fact that its creator, David Milch, is a former English literature lecturer. 

Given these successes, it’s not surprising that, of all TV production companies, it’s HBO that’s been prepared to take a punt on giving an entire show to a novelist. Nic Pizzolatto is the author of two books and, like David Milch, has a background in teaching literature. He has just two screenwriting credits, both of them for episodes of The Killing. Sure, the guy can write, but running an entire show? That’s quite a gamble, but one that appears to have paid off. True Detective, the first major new drama of 2014, is a success. Handsomely written and brilliantly performed, it takes a series of recognisable cop tropes but uses them wisely, borrowing their framework to create a work that is strongly character-driven and genuinely affecting. 

The show’s influences are obvious but well chosen. The central crime shares a great deal of similarity with events in last year’s Hannibal, which was itself derived from the long term trend of focusing on the psychology of the perpetrator and of those employed to catch him. Even the title of the show recalls the pulp magazines of the twentieth century, but that too is probably intentional. True Detective, like the James Ellroy works that it partly resembles, is the inheritor of the tradition of hardboiled crime writing. The murder is gruesome and done for an as yet obscure motive while the cops are gruff, bitter and weary, perhaps raging inwardly at the world but content for now to take it out on each other instead. They do so quietly, keeping their aggression, like their emotions, firmly buttoned down. Like all the best cop fiction, True Detective is definitively about the cops.

The plot concerns a murder perpetrated, investigated and (we’re told) solved in 1995. The two lead detectives, Louisiana state cops Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) have both since left the force and are being interviewed about the case in the present day in short, intimate scenes that punctuate the main flashback narrative. It’s a neat device that allows Pizzolatto to explore the content of his characters’ thoughts as much as demonstrating their actions and gives the show its most obvious novelistic conceit.  

They are asked a little about the case but the bulk of their answers concern the relationship they had with one another and this is the show’s primary concern. The case in question, the killing of Dora Lang was their first major one together and it seems to have coloured their entire relationship. Not that it got off to the best start. These are cops in the tradition of the buddy cop genre with the relatively easy going family man Hart paired with the decidedly odd and certainly damaged Cohle. McConaughey, who is gearing up for an excellent 2014 (he picked up a Golden Globe for Dallas Buyers Club as True Detective was being broadcast) has a peach of a role. He’s a fragile presence, the sort of cop that throws around phrases like ‘paraphillic love map’ and who is prepared to spout psychological and philosophical lessons to anyone who so much as offers him a cup of coffee. 

There won’t be many such offers. His fellow detectives nickname him ‘Taxman’, on account of the fact that he takes crime scene notes in a large ledger rather than a policeman’s notebook, but it’s just as likely a reflection of his popularity at the station. Unsmiling throughout, he comes across like a man whose understanding of human interaction is drawn entirely from a now-discredited textbook with half the pages torn out. The show’s central mystery is not ‘who killed Dora Lang?’ but ‘what the hell is going on in Rust Cohle’s head?’ 

It’s a damn good question and one that would make Hart the lead detective. He’s barely more peppy than his partner and although Harrelson is given the episode’s funniest lines, they’re a bitter, world-weary kind of funny. He is, by his own admission, ‘just a regular Joe with a big-ass dick’, but that’s, typically it would seem, an underestimation. Hart is no idiot; he’s perspicacious enough to see through his partner as well as anyone else and, while he remains to be sold on Cohle’s Will Graham-esque theorising, is a smart and capable detective. His steady home life is presented in stark contrast to that of his partner, who is freighted with grief for his own family and possibly his own sanity. The episode’s central set-piece (if it can even be called that) is a dinner at Hart’s house to which his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) insists that Cohle is invited. It’s another cop drama staple, Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtaugh ate together, as did Seven’s Mills and Somerset, but it’s used well, unpicking a little more of Cohle’s anti-personality while giving Hart something to be genuinely irritated by. 

Both leads deliver superb performances, essaying their characters with minimal fuss and an absence of distracting theatrics. This is slow burn TV, which promises to use all eight episodes to draw out the poison in its characters’ heads and to do so patiently and with plausibility of narrative. The run is limited and True Detective is intended as an anthology series, like American Horror Story. Each season will be a standalone story that shares thematic concerns but no direct narrative links, which adds a sense of completeness to the story, inoculating it against contrived cliffhangers and the potential for credibility-stretching escalation from season to season. It’s a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Just like a novel. 

We’ll be covering True Detective episode-by-episode. Spoilers will be switched on from next week. 

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How do you rate it alongside other opening first episodes like Breaking Bad?

Thanks for the heads up too. I need a new decent TV show to watch.

I thought it was great, let's hope it keeps up (or exceeds) this level.
HBO has once again created something we have never seen before,

It's rather different from Breaking Bad's opener. BB laid its cards right on the table with Walt in the desert. True Detective is subtle in its promises, but those promises are good ones.

We were hughly disappointed. We want our stolen hour of our life back. HBO has some of the best shows on TV. But this mediocre at best. I would bet it wouldn't last more than 3 episodes on a regular network. I guess you can't have a winner all the time. Don't lose an hours time in your life like us. PASS ON THIS BOMB!

I really enjoyed the first episode and I think this is a great review. The broody, glacial pace allows for two brilliant performances and the central mystery - which ties the characters together - is intriguing. Looking forward to ep 2.

I absolutely flippin loved the pilot. It took about 5 minutes before I was hooked and about a whole episode before I was completely and utterly sold on this being a fantastic new show. I do hope it keeps being this awesome as I have already recommended it to some of my friends. I have to say it's been a quite a while since I saw a pilot that had me raving as much as this one. Can't wait for next week's episode! What a great edition to HBO's already fantastic programming, Oh and yes a very good review too. I kinda disagree with some points but that's really because True Detective really catered to my personal tastes so I guess I'm biassed here. Still I think even if I try to be objective this was one hell of a pilot! I'd be very surprised if we'll see another one as good as this one before the year's end.

BB went in gun's blazing. True Detective takes a more thoughtful approach. I actually liked the True Detective pilot much better but I've never been as big a BB fan as some others.

What was bad about it? It was dark, atmospheric, pretty thrilling at times and even deep and emotional. With well developed characters and fantastic acting. What more could you want from a tv show? Yes it was a bit slower paced then some other shows but it's not like Game of Thrones moves along at a breakneck speed or that The Wire was a fast paced action thriller. So what was wrong with it?

Love the show so far but ill save reasons once more of a bridge is established between past and present. I agree with starbuck on a more thoughtful approach. Cohle is looking like one of my favorite 2014 charcters in television. (If only he would smile)

We're all entitled to our opinions but in this case, Dealcatcher, you are flat out wrong on every conceivable level here.

I thought it was wonderful. The acting was as good as it gets and it's got me hooked. 'Older' McConaughey in particular is brilliant as he's hiding 'something' behind his eyes that is different to the younger version of himself. Can't wait to see what it is, although... SPOILER....

It seems that the final revelation means the interviewing detectives are eyeing him for the original and new murders possibly?

Just finished watching it and thought it was fantastic. Took a while to get used to the format...

SPOILERS...SPOILERS....SPOILERS.

SPOILERS...SPOILERS....SPOILERS.

SPOILERS...SPOILERS....SPOILERS.

Rust definitely has an affair with Martins wife...who in turn is having an affair with the legal assistant. Loved the show. My brain is working overtime. I much prefer older McConaughey to his younger version. Brilliant acting. My new favourite TV show.

True Detective seems to be just the tonic we needed in a week where we've learned that Boardwalk Empire, The Newsroom and Justified are all coming to an end. It's such a good feeling to have a brand spanking new show to tuck into; one that, on the basis of the pilot, looks really promising. Can't wait to see where it goes.

"...distinctly poetic language (of Deadwood)...": Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of a bunch of cunts...... Ya, right.

"Nic Pizzolatto is the author of two books... has just two screenwriting
credits, both of them for episodes of The Killing." - scripts that already existed, albeit in Danish-talk or something.

If the remainder of the series can maintain the character of the first episode, 'True Detective' will be up there with B/B. Superb dialogue, style, story-telling and acting by the two leads, with McConnnaaaaauufgfghjefhhkweyyyyy stealing the show - high praise indeed from one who cannot stand McConnnaaaaauufgfghjefhhkweyyyyy. My only fear is that subsequent episodes will not reflect the style of ep 1 due to the latter's effective 'pilot' status i.e. characterisation may be altered; one or more events of ep 1 never referred to again, etc. Producers love to change things as they go.

When a nation of television viewers has been force-fed a steady diet of the 41-minute dash that is your standard U.S. network-tv fare, it's understandable that a series which accords 'story' priority over quick-fix, self-contained formula will be perceived, by a good percentage of the American viewing public, as 'mediocre at best'. The irony of your, 'I would bet it wouldn't last more than 3 episodes on a regular network' remark is that it is actually a compliment because it sets 'True Detective' apart from 'regular network' programming ...thank (insert your preferred deity here).

Agree with your 'older McConaughey' comment. Usually, I can't bear to watch the guy but I was immediately sucked-in by the character of the elder. I'm not sure that there was any need for the 'spolier' alerts because there wasn't any attempt, in the narrative, to hide the inevitable cause of conflict; if anyone missed it then they weren't watching or listening.

I wanted to put the warning incase someone read it without having seen the first episode first! Agree with you about anyone missing it...

Just seen this. Loved it. Borges should be added to the literary sources and Faulkner... So McConaghy is the mystical gnostic detective and Harrelson the practical materialist, MC deals with thought and philosophy, H with hard facts... There is going to be a crossover somewhere and one possibly involving the investigating detectives too.

Oh yeah and that legal assistant so resembled Monica Lewinsky...

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