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TRUE DETECTIVE:
Hart of darkness?
Or black as Cohle?

January 15, 2014 - Ray Eckenrode

Blogger’s note: With the advent of micro-blogging via Twitter and the decline in my own personal free time, it takes a lot (i.e. Steelers game, “Mad Men” episode) to convince me to do a full-fledged blog in this spot. And HBO’s new Sunday night phenom, “True Detective,” delivers a lot. What follows are some rambling reflections of the premiere episode. Since we know there are only seven more to follow, I’ll likely blog on it in essay form each week. If you have not seen the premiere, I highly recommend you catch it via replay or On Demand. It’s riveting television.

The year 1995 was a landmark in terms of crime drama and narrative storytelling. That was the year (in back-to-back months no less) that Kevin Spacey blew our minds as a ritualistic serial killer in David Fincher’s “Seven,” which influences TV and movie cop drama to this day; and as double-talking criminal mastermind Keyser Soze in Brian Singer’s “The Usual Suspects,” which offered a surprise narrative twist and shock ending that’s often been imitated but never duplicated since.

So maybe it’s a total coincidence that a large part of HBO’s sparkling new Sunday night cop drama, “True Detective,” is set in 1995, but given the way the meticulous premiere takes on those cop archetypes that were laid down that year and the tantalizing layered story and unique narrative style laid out in the show’s first hour, it’s likely an tribute of sorts.

The basic layout of the “True Detective” story is ingenious and the possibilities endless. In 2012, two current Louisiana homicide detectives are interviewing two retired detectives about a ritualistic murder case they solved in 1995 (and a case that clearly changed each of their lives, personally and professionally, and one that haunts them still). The kicker is that there’s been a similar murder in 2012 and as the episode unfolds it becomes clear that there’s not just a question about whether they got the right guy in 1995, but whether one or both of the retired cops are involved somehow in the modern-day murder. That immediately calls into question what we can believe in “True Detective.” Are the retired cops telling the truth or are they pulling a double Keyse Soze? (In one hilarious scene, a character is handed a mug during a recorded police interview, but instead of the subtlety of “Kobayashi” written on the bottom, “Big Hug Mug” is scrawled in gigantic letters across the side.)

In lesser hands, that might have made a neat episode of “Criminal Minds,” but Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are dueling revelations as detectives and former partners Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle. Harrelson’s marble-mouthed Hart hearkens Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Ed Tom Bell in “No Country for Old Men,” but where Ed Tom was a good man trying to make sense of a world gone mad, there’s a real sense in the premiere that Marty Hart’s family man façade is covering up a lot of rot underneath. McConaughey is hypnotic as the brooding, philosophizing Cohle, haunted by his young daughter’s mysterious death and who knows what else, he has a heart of darkness that seems perfectly matched to the task of catching a Satanic killer. It’s a performance that’s already generating Emmy buzz and rightly so.

“True Detective” will be an anthology series, with a different storyline and different characters each season, a la “American Horror Story,” and that’s a welcome relief. That means the eight episodes that will comprise Hart and Cohle’s character arc are in the can, their story is told though not yet known. There’ll be no need to stretch it out in response to high ratings (“True Detective” was HBO’s biggest premiere since “Boardwalk Empire” in 2010) and no filler storylines needed to add additional seasons. The vision of creator and crime writer Nic Pizzolato and director Cary Joji Fukunaga will be complete and uncompromised.

One of the great things about “True Detective” is how self aware it seems to be, unafraid to use cop show stereotypes and unafraid to set them on their ear, from the almost silly “light and dark” names of the two leads to Hart’s winking monologue about the different types of cops he’s known. The characters never speak directly to the camera, but there are several scenes where they might as well, none moreso than the gem in the premiere where Harrelson’s Hart has heard enough of McConaughey’s Cole spouting pyschobabble and implores “stop saying weird shit like you ‘smell the psychosphere.’” It’s at once a line that’s perfect to the story and perfect to our perceptions as a audience. Which begs the question,”Is ‘True Detective’ trying to play mind games with its audience, like Fincher and Singer and Gwyneth’s head and Spacey’s limp did back in 1995, or just pretending to do so?”

We learn early in the premier from Hart that Cohle was known as “The Taxman” for his penchant of using a giant ledger to take copious notes at crime scenes. In 2012, Cohle tells the detectives why, noting it’s usually one little overlooked detail that eventually makes a case come together. As we wait for the mystery of “True Detective” to come together, we have to wonder if we already have overlooked that one detail.

 
 

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Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are drawing raves for "True Detective."