“Of course i’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people. With impunity.”
True Detective arrives on British shores via Sky Atlantic, with an unstoppable wave of hype and a capacity to compel ardent TV geeks to seek out episodes online as soon as they’ve aired in America. How could any show live up to what was arguably one of the greatest TV series trailers in the You Tube era? Quite simply- it does. And then some.
With an obvious antecedent in Seven, where the act of killing and the acts upon the body had meaning in themselves, True Detective also pairs a similarly mismatched detective duo in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. If Seven had Detectives Mills and Sommerset- the former a naive Detective newbie and the latter being an erudite veteran, True Detective generates its spark from the opposing world views of Detectives Cohle (McConaughey) and Hart (Harrelson).
Over the course of these first two episodes, Cohle is shown to be a brilliant detective- but one plagued by alcoholism, drug addiction, psychedelic flashes and visions, who is haunted by the demons of a broken marriage, a dead daughter and a unique philosophical outlook: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.” In our contemporary world where narcissistic self-obsession has reached hitherto unknown levels of manifestation, Cohle’s words chime: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self… programmed with total assurance that we are each a somebody. When in fact, everybody’s nobody.” As they drive back from the scene of the crime they are investigating, Detective Hart’s (Harrelson) response is that of the everyman: stop talking weird shit in my car.
Cohle has a unique and unusual way of talking- it is arched, archaic and makes him seem very much from another time. This anachronistic outsider is out of step with his colleagues, possessed with a fierce intelligence and a scathing nihilism. He is utterly compelling. His colleagues call him the ‘Taxman’, for the black book in which he is always making notes and drawings of what he sees at crime scenes gives him the air of a number cruncher. The reason for the black book is simple though- the Taxman just doesn’t want to miss a thing and fills it with notes and drawings of the scene. An aversion to photographs? Or a wish to capture the scene quickly? If Hart seems repelled by human nature and its capacity for evil, Cohle seems curious about it.
Hart’s car in these first two episodes is frequently shown in long-tracking shots, propelling our two protagonists into the surreal, alien and oddly beautiful Gothic landscapes of the American Deep South. Interestingly, at night, when Cohle drives his car at night, the streetlights and car lights take on strange glows. They act as triggers for visual flashbacks from his time as an addict working undercover in Narco. His descent into addiction is revealed to have begun after the untimely and tragic death of his young daughter, which subsequently led to the breakdown of his marriage. In a common trope of Detective drama, Cohle is shown to be very much ‘married’ to the job.
True Detective doesn’t do things by halves, and rises above traditional Detective drama cliches. With huge HBO-level production values, soundtrack supervison by T Bone Burnett, and a stellar supporting cast, the show creates a rich, gripping and pungent world. One wishes to avoid using the phrase ‘Deep South American Gothic’, but one cannot help it- for this show has it in spades. A murder victim dressed in antlers and painted with strange symbols? Check. A crime scene peppered with strange wooden sculptures? Check. An investigation that throws up links to prostitution, Evangelical Churches, Truck Stops, and Swamp Lands? Check. True Detective isn’t redolent of Southern Gothic- it is steeped in it.
But that’s not to say our induction into this story is easy. The brief flash of a title card in episode one reveals the initial crime took place in the mid 90s, and we are presented with a gaunt,
handsome Detective Cohle and an athletic-looking Detective Hart who possesses a full head of hair. So it is somewhat jarring for the narrative to flash-forward and jump cut to Cohle dressed like a convict with tattoos, long hair and a handlebar moustache, and Hart shown to be a balding, rotund Detective who has seen better days. The chronological shifts are what gives the story tension- a later perspective looking back on the events of the past- Hart and Cohle’s questioning acts as historical narration as we hear them reminisce on the investigation. Cohle and Hart are being videotaped in the present day by two Detectives investigating a similar crime to the one Cohle and Hart are recounting in flashback. Hart still seems to be a detective. Cohle is seemingly drinking himself to death.
Two episodes in, one is already floundering when it comes to trying to dissect what makes this show so great, so utterly unique as there is so much to discuss. This is a show with wide scope, ambition, visual flair, a brooding score, and in Cohle and Hart- it has two characters so utterly absorbing you cannot help get sucked in to their psychology and methodology. The argument for Television becoming the new cinema grows stronger every year, and True Detective has two incredible character actors at its heart who have been mainstays of American cinema for the last twenty years. You can see why Hollywood’s A-List are drawn to TV when the pedigree of production values, writing and ambition are so high.
But, it’s the contradictions inherent in Cohle and Hart that make them so compelling: Hart’s deluded hypocrisy that his extra-marital affair is ‘protecting his family’ by allowing him to decompress from the stresses of the job; Cohle’s fixation upon a crucifix not for any particular religious belief, but rather to contemplate the concept of ‘allowing your own crucifixon’. The tension between the two Detectives bubbles to the surface with intriguing results. Cohle makes a comment about Hart’s wife, after Hart arrives in the station the next morning in the same clothes as the day before. This most obvious of deductions results in a physical tussle, where Cohle alarmingly yet calmly warns Hart that it “ain’t worth losing your hands over.” They disengage and Hart storms off. Cohle? He just checks his own pulse at the neck. Have that.
True Detective reinforces Television’s and its audience’s appetite for murder and mystery. As ever, we are voyeurs. Our fascination with death, with killing, with the taking of another human life never goes away- it is the ultimate transgression. We have to know what happened. And why. The first two episodes of this superlative crime drama from HBO are dragging you down into an intoxicating darkness, that explores the extremes of the human condition. So far, we have only been shown what Cohle and Hart have seen. It is a great technique. As Hart says, his job is to search for narrative. As viewers, we are doing the same.
– David Barclay