TV Waffle - True Detective (Season One)

HBO's acclaimed new crime drama.


True Detective is an HBO original series starring Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rust (Rusty) Cohle. The first season premiered on January 12, 2014 and ran for eight one hour episodes. Given that this series is a murder mystery, there will be spoilers showing up later on in the review.  Warning will be given for those who wish to stop reading.
The series, true to its title, is a detective story set in modern day Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, but a good deal of the action is told through the use of flashbacks beginning in 1995. Back in that day, Marty Hart was a detective in the Louisiana state police force, where he had just been paired with the enigmatic detective Rust Cohle. While Marty is your fairly typical middle class man, Cohle is a nihilistic individual who basically lives for his work. This has a lot to do with the loss of his daughter a number of years earlier and, shortly afterwards, his marriage as a result of that. The two are assigned to the murder of a young woman, the details of which have a ritualistic pattern to them as her body is found posed naked with a wreath crown, complete with deer antlers. The framing story for the flashback is that the two, now retired, detectives are being interviewed separately by a new pair of investigators named Gilbough and Papiana, played respectively by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles. They have reopened the case that Hart and Cohle had in theory solved, as a new series of murders matching the MO of that serial killer have landed in their lap. 
The series also follows Gilbough and Papiana's investigation and, ultimately, Hart and Cohle's renewed look into the case; however, the main thrust of the series is the original investigation. Over the course of this we also watch these two detectives' lives become entangled with one another and the hostilities that inevitably follow, given their radically divergent personalities. Of course, the supposed success of solving the case adds a good deal of fuel to this already volatile mix. The story ends up being as much about the nature of Hart and Cohle's relationship as the murder mystery itself.
Early on in the series, reference is made to The King in Yellow. For those unfamiliar with early pulp literature, this is a collection of supernatural short stories by author Robert W. Chambers that is significant in that his writings were the inspiration of a later and more well known American writer named H. P. Lovecraft. This ties directly into the ritual nature of the murders, as elements from Chambers' work are specifically mentioned within the series, which lent a serious air of creepiness to the proceedings. The series also makes no attempt to pull its punches. HBO is a pay cable channel and, as a result, is able to get away with quite a lot, but True Detective seemed to go out of its way to push against even those boundaries.
At this point I'll be going into spoiler territory so you can skip to the last paragraph if you haven't seen the series yet.
The real brilliance of  True Detective is in taking a key concept from a supernatural horror story and converting it into something very real and, as a result, much more horrific. For me, this struck the same chord as the Hitchcock classic Psycho. In Chambers stories, The King in Yellow is a play that the mere act of reading, much like Lovecraft's Necronomicon, can result in madness. In True Detective this play is converted into a video tape of a dark ritual that involves a heinous criminal act, which has a sanity challenging effect upon anyone who views the tape.
As a side note, Chambers' anthology The King in Yellow is available free to read at the Project Gutenberg website. Only the first four stories actually mention the play but The Yellow Sign is the strongest of them in my opinion.
One episode in particular so stood out for me that I wanted to mention it specifically. The fifth episode, titled The Secret Fate of All Life, specifically covers the events of Hart and Cohle's apprehension of the alleged serial killer. As we review the official events during the current investigation, the flashback shows us the actual sequence of events, which differ quite considerably from what was officially reported. The episode handles this disconnect in a perfectly trivial manner that, while a standard police drama stereotype, was so flawlessly executed that it was an absolute delight to watch.
Critical reaction to this first season has been good enough for HBO to commission a second. I'm especially hopeful as the concept for it is to be an anthology series along the same lines as American Horror Story, where each season features a completely new story line and, in True Detective's case, a new cast as well. Being a fan of anthology series, I would love to see a return to this format of television. Summing up, I think that our own Jason Abbey described my feelings for True Detective perfectly so I'll just quote him when he said "True Detective is the first must see television of 2014". It is, and you should.



Nick Sauer

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