True Detective: Embracing the Darkness
By Jon White, Multimedia Reporter
Detective Martin Hart: Do you wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Detective Rust Cohle: No. I don’t wonder, Marty. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
– True Detective Season 1, Episode 3
On paper, True Detective seems to have a lot going against it; a police procedural where a pair of detectives tries to catch a serial killer. It is a premise that has been seen many times before. When one watches the show, he or she will see just how much True Detective stands out as one of the unique “must-watch” shows on television. The generic title shares something with its main characters; that there is darkness hidden beneath the surface. True Detective stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson playing detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. The characters at first seem to be complete opposites, as Cohle is portrayed as a brooding but brilliant loner, while Hart is the family-man who does not have time to hear Cohle’s downtrodden views about the world. However, as the series progresses, the viewer will see that even though Cohle has his share of problems, Hart is also battling his own demons.
It appears that the inner demons never really get defeated, as seen when the characters are depicted later on in the storyline. True Detective has a main story running in two parallels; one being the partners in 1995 (and onward) as they track a killer, and the other being clips from 2012, when the detectives are talking about the case during interviews by two other detectives. Hart and Cohle are doing their interviews separately, showing that the two characters never do learn to deal with each other and have an inevitable falling out. Much of the intrigue of the show comes from the question of how these characters will eventually come to a head, which at times eclipses the viewer’s interest in the actual case.
While viewers wait to see how the leads will clash, they are also treated to the dishonesty that Cohle and Hart have between them. While the characters are giving their account of what happened in prior events, the scene skips back and the viewer is shown what actually happened. Sometimes the stories are truthful without too much taken away, and sometimes whole scenes are completely fabricated from what actually happened. These falsehoods show that the characters are willing to lie to hide truths that they feel will damage themselves, but they also show that even though the characters had a falling out that they are still looking out for the other. Whether this is done out of mutual respect or survival remains to be seen. For the time being, it shows that deception is one of the faults that these men have.
Both actors play these burdened men wonderfully, but special attention has to be given to McConaughey for his portrayal of Cohle. The actor has done some critically acclaimed work recently with Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Dallas Buyers Club, but True Detective is the highlight of his resume. If there was any doubt that the actor has shaken free of his romantic comedy/surfer dude days, this will finally squash the naysayers. McConaughey even sacrifices his popular good looks for a character that constantly has sunken eyes, chain smokes and does not age well at all. McConaughey’s portrayal of Cohle is haunting, as Cohle is a traumatized man filled with regret and living with the mistakes and sins of his past. This comes across in his mannerisms, philosophies, and near inability to function in a social setting. However, he is a brilliant detective; no one wants anything to do with him due to his personality.
The darkness inside of Cohle is also shown visually throughout the show. The cinematography is beautiful, utilizing lots of greys and dark colors, giving the show a constant brooding feeling. Even in daylight, everything seems overcast and grey. It also shows the characters as being in the dark, whether it is metaphorical, or simply a reflection of what is inside of them. There is also a scene during the fourth episode where an extended take is done through a night time robbery that ends badly, showcasing added tension to the pitch black backdrops, enticing viewers to become enveloped with the characters.
The show is not without its flaws though, as there are a few tropes that keep it from achieving television nirvana. The usual “cop show clichés” pop up, such as the typical police captain trying to get the detectives off the case. There is the age-old line of “give me something we can use or move on!” which seems out of place amongst the brilliance of the rest of the show.
Another trope that stands out is the character of Hart’s wife, Maggie. Although Maggie is played wonderfully by Michelle Monaghan, she is unfortunately given the stereotype of being the working wife that is resentful to her husband working the case so much. Again, the audience is subjected to lines telling him not to work so much, which is something that has been seen countless times and seems disjointed to the rest of the dialogue. Monaghan does a great job with the character, it is just a shame the dialogue is not written as well for her as other characters.
As attached as the viewer becomes to the characters, do not expect them to be around for multiple seasons. To further challenge the traditional cop show stereotype, show creator Nic Pizzolatto has stated that future seasons will feature all new characters and all new storylines (like FX’s American Horror Story). While that may be heartbreaking to fans, they can rest assured that if Pizzolatto’s talent keeps up, they can look forward to getting wowed again when the curtain is pulled back on the second season.
For fans of gritty television, look no further than True Detective. It is a testament to the character growth that when one is becoming more interested in watching characters battle drug addiction, drug flashbacks, infidelity, dishonesty, violence, and distrust rather than the actual case itself. HBO already had an unorthodox police procedural with the phenomenal show, The Wire, so it is nice to see the channel showcasing again how to make a cop show feel fresh with fallible characters. With later seasons promising new characters and stories, True Detective is quickly becoming the cop show to watch on television. The darkness and violence will definitely turn off some viewers, but considering the pilot was the highest rated series debut in the past three years for HBO, it seems many people are drawn to the show. The opposite of a moth to a flame, the darkness is what lures the characters and viewers into the mysteries of True Detective, only you will not get burned. You may, however, be unable to stop watching.