TV Binge: True Detective
Over the past decade-and-a-half, television has seemingly entered a golden age. A number of shows have become critically adored, with new heights achieved in acting, writing, and directing. Despite this, I was able to remain almost completely oblivious to almost every critically acclaimed television show that has debuted since 1999, only hearing about how good these shows were and how I was missing out. This week I’ll look at the night I spent with True Detective. Sorry, no steamy details included.
Why I didn’t watch it in the first place: True Detective was one of a trio of recent shows that I wanted to watch but was unable to because I didn’t have HBO. Of the three, this one was the real driving force behind getting a hold of an HBO Go account because of the insane amount of hype it was getting. It felt to me like I was truly missing a piece of television history (I was also getting a bit annoyed with people talking about it and not knowing what the hell was going on). After finally getting the account I decided to wait until the middle of the night to start watching (similar to the way I watched Hannibal) because I knew the show was rather dark and figured it would add to the experience. I originally planned on watching it over two nights, but after finishing episode four, I decided that I couldn’t in good conscience stop there and ended up finishing the entire season that night. It was well worth it.
What did I think of it: Alright, alright, alright. I apologize for that, but when talking about Matthew McConaughey, I am bound by ancient decree to begin the discussion with that line. With the McConaugh-gods sated, I can back to the business at hand. Watching True Detective in one sitting is what I imagine having a fever dream would feel like, with the stream of dark images and dreary philosophical ramblings entering my brain and effectively turning it to mush as the final credits of the final episode started to run. Watching the events unfold was wearying and somewhat depressing, with a number of moments being difficult to watch. With that being said, I couldn’t bring myself to stop watching because it was so well done.
Much as with Hannibal, I was able to avoid spoilers before watching, which was of particular importance with this show because the entire season revolved around a single mystery. The central mystery, which deals with a series of abductions and murders along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, is interesting enough, and it provides a number of tense moments, but in reality the mystery is less interesting than the two main characters, Detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, respectively. The show chronicles the development of these characters and their relationship as they investigate the murders and the repercussions the investigation has on their lives.
Harrelson and McConaughey are uniformly excellent, with Cohle’s half-existential/half-nonsense philosophy and Hart’s common-man way of life playing off each other perfectly, and both reach a level I did not think either was capable of reaching. I was a fan of both before watching this show, but came out of it with a new found respect for both, and McConaughey in particular blew me away. McConaughey gives Cohle an almost other-worldly feel, as if he’s just visiting Earth for a while, with the exception of a couple of truly heartbreaking emotional breakdowns that betray his humanity. (Side note: the amount of smoking Cohle does throughout the season makes me believe that he won a contest where he won a lifetime supply of cigarettes.)
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the setting. Louisiana has a certain mystique about it (at least to an outsider like me), due in part to its unusual history. Its position along the Gulf Coast has made it a destination for all kinds of people, bringing with them a variety of cultures that have mixed with and seeped into one another, creating a place unlike any other. The cinematography really accentuates the setting through the use of extreme long shots that linger over the landscapes, capturing the details of a revival church or an ancient fortress called Carcosa. Southern Louisiana is just so much different from anywhere I’ve ever seen that it lends the show a disquieting tone.
The symbols used throughout True Detective also add to the level of discomfort. A number of interesting symbols are used during the first murder scene, the most unsettling of which was a stick sculpture. During a later episode, Cohle finds a room full of the stick sculptures, meaning that a number of other murders have taken place. These sculptures made me uncomfortable because they were made of something from nature but felt so unnatural, like they didn’t belong in natural, or anywhere in the world. The symbols used to describe the killer, The Yellow King and a man with a spaghetti face and green ears, are also extremely creepy (Good news, though: the killer does end up being extremely creepy). The whole show just has a creeping feeling that gets under the skin.
The standout scene of the season, both in terms of style and action, occurs at the end of episode 4 (This scene is the main reason I decided to keep watching after originally deciding to stop after that episode). The scene, which shows Cohle (who is undercover in a biker gang in order to get information about a drug maker who is connected with the murders) and a group of bikers breaking into a drug-dealer’s house to steal his supply and the shootout that follows, consists of a single long take lasting nearly six minutes and is filmed using a hand-held camera. From a technical standpoint, the scene is practically unbelievable, as the camera follows Cohle through several houses as he attempts to avoid getting killed. By using a long take, the audience is not distracted by any edits, which means that the viewer isn’t given a break from the action on screen. The use of a hand-held camera gives an urgency to the scene and immerses the viewer in the action, making it feel as if they are part of the action. This scene, in my opinion, is the most breathtaking moment of True Detective.
Watching this show was an experience. I was aware of the hype, and it did not disappoint in the least. It was well worth losing a night of sleep to watch it in one sitting. It also reinforced my desire to never go back to southern Louisiana, which is just below my desire to avoid the parts of Florida that aren’t Orlando.