Satanic murders in a TV show with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey? Alright, alright, alright.
True Detective (2014) was a surprise when it was first released. It was created by an unknown writer, Nic Pizzolatto, and his equally unknown director buddy, Cary Joji Fukunaga. It was released during the epitome of what critics have called, ‘The Golden Age of Television’. Naturally, this means the TV scene has been more competitive than ever, as writers are constantly challenged to make TV shows with new, interesting, challenging premises (never mind that at least 80% of ‘groundbreaking’ shows can be described with the line, “gritty anti-hero guy goes around, causing damage and feeling sad” or “spoilt rich kids freak out when things don’t go exactly their way“).
True Detective is an anthology series, meaning each season has a different story and cast. The first season revolves around two detectives, the moralizing ‘normal’ Hart (Woody ‘the Woodpecker’ Harrelson) and the Nietzschean ‘weird’ Cohle (Matthew McCowandhay). These two detectives solved a Satanic murder case in 1995, but are interviewed in 2014 about a possible reopening of the case, due to suspicions over many more similar murders that have been occurring since. This is shown while the duo tackle the drama of their personal lives (especially exploring their attitudes toward control and women).
Pizzolatto took a big risk hiring his actors, specifically, McSayMyNameSayMyName. Aside from having an impossible last name, Matthew McChardonnay did not command nearly as much respect when he was hired as he does now. Despite having starred in The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), McFiftyShadesOfGrey was still looked down upon as a mediocre, rom-com-only actor. While he has since won an Oscar, he was viewed as risky at the time of hiring. Boy, did he show them.
The acting is, to say the least, superb. The actors both portray characters they have not done before. Woody ‘the Unfortunately Named’ Harrelson is typically seen as somewhat of a stoner in real life. McBillyHoliday, conversely, is viewed in real life as a stereotypical friendly Texan gentleman. Both portray the exact opposites on screen. Hart is a repressed detective, fighting his urges and trying to maintain a normal, drama-free life. He is hypocritical and flawed. Cohle, on the other hand, is beaten by the weight of the world. Deeply cynical, he gives into urges, and almost becomes them. He doesn’t care for the rest of humanity, but merely looks down on them for seemingly not reaching the same intellectual plain as him. In short, the two men are polar opposites, and frequently conflict.
The writing is sharp. The down-to-earth banter between characters makes the show. Some of the best lines are the off-the-cusp jokes told by Hart to his friends and the philosophizing of the constantly questioning Cohle. It is a genuine surprise to me that Pizzolatto wasn’t that big beforehand. Although the quality doesn’t surprise me, considering he spent over 4 years conceptualizing and writing the first season.
T Bone Burnett, besides being the whitest dude alive named ‘T Bone’, is a musical genius. He was the one who composed the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis (both 2013). His choice of song for the opening theme alone was a spectacular choice. His exceptional taste in music help reinforce the feel of dread that pervades the show’s atmosphere.
Next, is the direction. Fukunaga is not trying to create the next Breaking Bad in terms of originality. He sticks to old, conventional camera angles. It’s what he does with them that makes the direction exquisite. Fukunaga went deep in terms of symbolism, to the point where almost every shot is a metaphor for something down the line (twice even possibly spoiling the ending to the show via symbolism).
Going on about symbolism are the themes of the show. True Detective deals heavily with the themes of masculinity and religion. McChick-Fil-A is shown to have lost his family, of which all members save him were female. Hart also has an entirely female family. McCali-4-Nye-A is shown to somehow suffer from the aftermath of women, whereas Hart is trying to control the women in his life. Hart has a deep, internalized misogyny and hypocritical view of women that seemingly only intensifies throughout the show. In short, McTotalBae gives into the will of women, whereas Woody ‘the Viagra Salesman’ is trying to rule them. The whole show revolves around sex crimes and Satanic murders that are only geared towards women and children. The men are either emasculated or have a ‘Madonna-Whore Complex’.
Furthermore is the treatment of religion. Pizzolatto grew up in a strictly Catholic household, and holds somewhat of a negative view towards religion. The show portrays a Pagan murderer who sacrifices women and children while abusing them. However, the murderer might also have ties with a rich family and Faith schools. Differing religions with differing world views converge and mingle, while McDonaldsEh openly criticizes the idea of religion in the middle of a church sermon.
The acting, writing, direction, music and themes of the show all lend themselves to create a masterpiece concoction made of Southern Horror, Nietzschean philosophy, True Crime and New Atheism all mixed together in the setting of a macabre Americana. I don’t think you have to look hard to see that this show has made me into a total fanboy.
True Detective Season 1 gets a 7/7.
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