True Detective episode 1 review: The Long Bright Dark

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.

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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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