Easily the most “cinematic” television show I’ve ever watched (followed by the gorgeous Hannibal), Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective is a marvel to behold. As cinematic, layered, complex, and dense as the season is, each episode is deserving of a full review on its own. From the incredible lead actors, to the famous, riveting long take in episode 4, Detective is full of things to talk about. Unlike its other esteemed “golden age” contemporaries such as The Sopranos, these 8 episodes hold one self-contained story, ultimately feeling much less like a television show, and much more like an 8-hour film.
Our “true detectives” in this season are “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson). They are charged with investigating the grisly, occult-like murder of a prostitute, a case that ultimately spans 17 years, with more secrets and bodies to be discovered. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and writer Pizzolatto expertly dance between past and present, with Cohle and Hart called in for questioning about their infamous 1995 case. What really sets Detective apart from its whodunnit television contemporaries, aside from the brilliant plotting and pacing, is its dense, rich characterization of its two leads.
Cohle is a nihilist with an extremely dark path, alienating himself from most everyone around him, and dedicated to his work. He is efficient, often rude, often willing (as much as he says otherwise) to spit out his pessimistic philosophy and world view. On paper, Cohle is the lesser of the two leads, but McConaughey’s performance, which is often ice cold and razor sharp, holds plenty of humanity, giving us something to latch onto aside from the downtrodden, intellectual nihilism that makes characters like him so “cool” and interesting to audiences. Opposite him is Marty, a pragmatic, old fashioned, misogynistic man’s man. A family man. On the case, he’s the kind of cop we’ve seen in hundreds of movies. But we see all sides of Marty, flaws and all. Harrelson is fantastic here, wholly convincing, human, genuine, and helps to elevate the nuanced Marty as an icon of masculinity (something the season seems focused on examining).
There’s also a fixation on religious imagery and iconography, often placed in the frame with or against the atheistic Cohle, all set against the backdrop of murky, swampy Louisiana, a location that Fukunaga turns into a character all its own. True Detective’s setting and atmosphere is truly ominous, its plot a brilliant slice of neo-noir, its characters literary in their complexities, its compositions and cinematography compelling, and its ideas big. It is television at its finest.