True Detective

This is my second binge-viewing of an 8-episode police series in two weeks, both excellent in their own way, one British and the other decidedly American.  The first was Broadchurch, while this week’s gripping drama was bought almost on a whim.

Here’s the thing: I could summarise the plot of HBO’s True Detective in 200 words and you’d probably stop me before the end.  “Yeah, yeah,” you’d say, “tell me something I don’t know.”  And it would be true – the description would sound like a thousand police dramas you’ve seen before: the mismatched cop partners, the baffling murder case that has dragged on for many years without being solved, strange symbols with hints of devil worship, endless witness tracking and interrogations, chases and shootings, opposition from within the police hierarchy closing ranks, plus the endless misery of personal lives… need I go on?

But this description does not begin to scratch the surface here.  True Detective is in fact one of the most powerful slow-burn dramas you will find anywhere, its attention to detail immense, its script taut, its acting painfully intense, its music as atmospheric as its camerawork, its direction neat and thoughtful.  This is unquestionably very high class drama, as much about the complex and smouldering relationship between the two principle protagonists, played with a deceptively casual precision by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, both changing in appearance and demeanour subtly over the lengthy time span covered by the series.  Were this a movie, you could expect both to be up for Best Actor, though both were nominated for a host of TV awards.

But they are not the only characters of note.  While the culture is radically different between the two series, TD shares some qualities with Broadchurch, notably the claustrophobic, brooding atmosphere in which the landscape plays a key role.  Where Broadchurch used rural Dorset to great effect, the desolate swamplands of coastal Louisiana and the suspicious, secretive and parochial nature of its people make the solving of serious crime a feat that cannot be achieved by conventional means alone.

Add to that McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle (Rusty to his few friends) being an outsider (from Texas) teamed with a local boy (Harrelson’s Detective Martin Hart) who does not take kindly to the methods adopted by his newly-appointed parter and you can see parallels with David Tennant’s dour Scot appointed to work with a local policewoman DS Ellie Miller.

The growth of grudging trust between the two men, to the extent that they forge a bond long after one has departed the police service, is the backbone of the drama, and not one forged lightly.  Chalk-and-cheese cops have been meat and drink to cop dramas since the 50s, but they are becoming notably more sophisticated, perhaps a function of the characters being given more time and space in which to breathe, the plotting becoming more intricate and the scripts operating simultaneously on multiple levels.

Nobody could ever call the likes of True Detective superficial, and the added depth communicates itself to audiences as being more true to life but also holding far more intrigue than initially meets the eye.  There is so much to admire that you are not aware of all the detail first time.

This is a drama worthy of a second viewing, and there are not too many of those to the pound.  I like the fact that even minor characters are introduced early and are given screen time to develop multiple facets.  You know full well some will turn out to be red herrings, while others will hold vital secrets.  A good example: the guy running responsible for the maintenance contract on lawns around several key buildings has his secret revealed, but only when the camera leaves the normal angle and swoops upwards to view the pattern created by the ride-on mower.

The final denouement did not please all critics.  Some felt it fell flat, though to my eyes that could only be the case if your expectations were so sky-high that anything other than the revelation that an alien spaceship had landed and little green men had committed the serial killings.  Maybe the issue is association, since the ending will remind many of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at least by virtue of the backwoods hideout untouched by human hand for many a long year.

You’re going to have to trust me that this is no anticlimax, certainly worthy of the long build-up.  There are enough loose ends and possibilities in the characters to justify a second series, much as was served up by Broadchurch, though which direction it will take remains to be seen.  We know only this:

Set in California, season two of True Detective is expected to premiere in mid-2015.

Losing Louisiana will rip away the guts of series 1, so I remain to be convinced – but given the cast, crew and scriptwriters, ever hopeful.  In the meantime, if you haven’t already seen series 1 of True Detective, get to it without delay!

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