TV: True Detective (Season 1)

I suspect it’s possible to enjoy True Detective solely on the basis of its surface mystery, but damn, there’s so much else going on here. The latest high-profile HBO drama has all the earmarks of a standard, gritty police procedural, full of gruff antiheroes and testosterone-fueled male behavior. But even from its earliest stages, there’s something intense and sinister boiling along under the surface. The result is perhaps one of the creepiest, most disturbing seasons of television ever made – and also one of the most satisfying.

Set in rural Louisiana, True Detective follows the case of state police partners Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), a pair of drawly southern boys reluctantly teaming up to investigate the weird, ritualistic murder of a young woman. McConaughey gets the juicier role: Cohle is a nihilistic atheist with sick detective chops and a thousand-yard stare, and he’s absolutely riveting, even at his least intelligible. But the more subtle, nuanced performance comes from Harrelson, the hypocritical Christian family man who can’t control his less virtuous urges. They’re partners, but they’re also foils, and the friction between them is electric, whether they’re quietly bickering philosophy or going at it tooth and nail.

The story ricochets back and forth through time, using an interesting interview framework: one thread shows Cohle and Hart getting interviewed about the case, while another goes back in time to show their younger selves actually working it. It’s unique structural legerdemain that makes for riveting viewing, because the detectives clearly know more and different things than they’re letting on in their interviews. Seeing how their stories diverge from the truth deepens the mystery, which plays out in compelling fashion over eight intense episodes.

But this isn’t just mystery; it’s psychological horror, and the show’s relentlessly unnerving tone is perhaps its most impressive achievement. Nic Pizzolatto’s script, Cary Fukunaga’s direction, the performances, the sound effects and music — it’s a synergistic collaboration that creates spine-tingling atmosphere throughout. Think Twin Peaks’ creepiest moments, amped up to eleven, and you’ve got the idea. Every week I was nervous to watch, even as I couldn’t look away.

It is, in most ways, a television masterpiece, but does fall short in one important aspect: sadly, all the female characters are prostitutes, victims, or love interests, and they’re all male-gazingly filmed. The only notable female character, played by a wasted Michelle Monaghan, is little more than a plot device. I’ve heard it argued that the unfortunate treatment of women in the show has a thematic purpose – backed up, perhaps, by the show’ tagline “man is the cruelest animal” – but I’m not entirely buying it.

If you can overlook that, though, it’s an amazing show, and one that’s going to reboot entirely for season two with new detectives and a new mystery. It’s one of those rare shows that immediately made me want to go back to the beginning and watch it straight through again for the sheer intensity of the experience, and also to catch all the things I missed. Highly recommended.

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