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Spring 2014 Review: True Detective

20 Jan

Two true detectives

I didn’t know what to expect coming in, but I’ve long been a fan of the season-long anthology format for television and was excited about any show that starred  the long underrated Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in the middle of his epic comeback. After actually watching the show, even those high expectations didn’t prepare me for how much I liked the debut episode.

True Detective is posed as a season long murder mystery, a format we’ve seen a few times in the last decade, but this isn’t your grandfather’s season long murder mystery. While it’s an obviously intriguing format (there’s a reason Agatha Christie sold so many books), I’ve been biased against it ever since the somehow still alive disaster known as The Killing broke me in the final two episodes of its first season (like thinking of the Lost finale, bringing up The Killing’s first season finale is the best way to instantly anger me). The Killing has made me come into any season-long murder mystery with a wary eye, perhaps unfairly, but there’s a part of me just waiting for a let down at every step. Broadchurch, a British season-long murder mystery being adapted for an American audience was a very pleasant surprise, surprising and satisfying without being ludicrous and over the top. It was, however, a fairly typical murder mystery, investigating all the players one by one, and everything that happened in the series pretty much revolved around the murder which took place in the first two minutes of the show.

True Detective is not that and it’s much the better for it. True Detective is a murder mystery, sure. There’s a murder at the beginning and presumably the show is going to take us through on the way to solving it. But it’s much more than that and only kind of about that.

The show is told through an interesting framing device. Two cops in 2012 are interviewing two ex-cops who thought they had solved a murder 17 years ago, in 1995, in rural Louisiana. As the two cops are interviewed separately, they each take us back, through their descriptions, into the past. Scenes of them taking to their interviewers in 2012 are interwoven with much longer scenes of their investigation in 1995, overlaid with narration, which is what they’re telling the interviewers. I’ve often complained about framing devices and narration that feels gimmicky, useless, cheap, and detrimental, but this is not that. This is a clever framing device that besides being plot relevant – it seems like events related to the murder will actually happen in 2012, rather than simply being a point from which to look back – presents interesting narrative opportunities. There are lots of unreliable narrator issues – the two cops, who we learn, haven’t spoken in ten years, remember the case and each other different, and have very different perspectives of the case and of each other. The ex-detectives, neither of whom work for the police anymore, have changed dramatically over the years.

The two primary detectives, as hinted at above, are played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, with McConaughey marvelously playing against type. Woody Harrelson is the good old boy partner, just trying to do his job and fit in, while McConaughey is the loner, intellectual who isn’t from Louisiana to begin with and doesn’t really belong. Unlike other shows, which would portray the McConaughey character as a reclusive genius who is brilliant at his craft but can’t fit into society (See House, Bones, and well a billion other shows), McConaughey is just another detective. He’s certainly a good one; Harrelson, who resents McConaughey for a number of reasons, certainly acknowledges that much. But he’s no genius; when he does figure out important case information it’s because he works all night because he can’t sleep. Harrelson is no dummy either and he puts up an aura of just working the job but he certainly takes his job seriously enough as a professional. The 2012 interviewers bring McConaughey and Harrelson through the details of the 1995 case but also into seemingly irrelevant details about the detectives’ relationship and personal lives, including a dinner at Harrelson’s house where McConaughey shows up drunk.

That’s the thing about True Detective. It’s about the murder mystery and it isn’t. The two detectives didn’t get incredibly far along their path to solving the crime in the first episode and I didn’t really care. Their chemistry, the charge and interaction between the two partners keeps the show moving while they slowly get around to the actual case. The show often feels more like a rumination than a murder mystery, and while the focal point is supposedly the case, it sometimes seems to fade into the background for stretches of the show, hiding behind the interplay between the two detectives.

Will I watch it again? Yes, for sure. This gets a gold star for most promising, and seems like an instant must-watch, which only comes along a couple times a year. It’s the early favorite for best new show of the spring season.