True Detective Season 1 Episode 1 Deconstructed

by: Michael Shields

True Detective has all the makings of HBO’s next great television series, and with only one episode in the books, it has our full attention….

Touch Darkness and Darkness touches you back.” Such is the promise from HBO’s latest series, True Detective. A tagline that acts as much as a teaser as it does a threat, letting it be known with foreboding honestly that the contents within are not for the faint of heart. Luckily, the most interesting of journeys never are.

At first glance True Detective may appear to be a simple cop drama1. One with an extraordinary cast for television (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey!), and one that, once again, appeals to America’s insatiable appetite for blood. Another gut-wrenching dissection of the anatomy of a killer, and the dementia that leads to gruesome savagery. But, HBO’s True Detective, while having so many of the elements of a conventional show, is far from ordinary. Sure, it seems familiar. But that’s where True Detective will catch you off guard. And with your guard down you are vulnerable, a feeling that is quite overpowering when detained by True Detective’s enduring grip.

What we have here is another water cooler show. A venture worthy of discussing week in and week out, and we here at Across the Margin plan to do just that. So, to begin, and to be thorough, let’s highlight a few essential facts before we move forward, a foundation if you will…..

  • Nic Pizzolatto is the creator of the series and will serve as Executive Producer, sole writer and showrunner. This is his ship, and it sails as he sees fit. Nic is the author of two books, Galveston and Between Here and the Yellow Sea. He is also currently writing the remake of The Magnificent Seven.

  • Cary Fukunaga will direct all the first season episodes. He made his feature film debut with the highly-acclaimed Sin Nombre, which he both wrote and directed. He also directed the latest adaption of Jane Eyre, and his next feature will be a twist-filled science-fiction love story called Spaceless.

  • Season One is set along the coastal plain of South Louisiana, where it was also filmed. Subsequent seasons, should they be ordered, would center on new cases, and introduce new stars2. So, let’s enjoy Mathew and Woody while we have them!3

  • T. Bone Burnett will be supervising the oft moody and highly affecting score, while Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake – Run, don’t walk!) will be responsible for the cinematography. Win, and Win!

All right, let’s get into it. The framework of True Detective is fairly simple, however the effectuation, not so much. True Detective is about two contrasting detectives, one a family man (Woody Harrelson as Detective Hart), the other an enigmatic deep thinker (Mathew McConaughey as Detective Cohle)4, embroiled together in what amounts to a life-altering case. This first season takes place in two unmistakable time periods,1995 and 2012, and it is astonishing the physical transformations exhibit between the two eras. The majority of the action takes place in 1995, where Detectives Cohle and Hart are commencing their investigation into what appears to be a serial killing. But from time to time the story cuts to 2012, where we find Cohle and Hart badgeless and bedraggled, and interrogated by another set of police officers (played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) about the case.

The use of divergent time frames allows Pizzolatto to craft a suspenseful saga, to toy with the viewers emotions as he meticulously reveals the details of the case at hand. It also allows us the opportunity to see how this case has dramatically changed all the characters in play over time. And these changes, and the reasons for them, are the shadowy corners of the room where this show resides. What happened to get us from Point A to this very much different, and untidy, point B? This is the heart of the matter. This is True Detectives.

Shot in Louisiana, True Detective has the authentic gritty Americana feel that so many of today’s better films try to capture. An extension of the so called “Poverty Porn” which has invaded the industry (think Winter’s Bone, or almost anything starring John Hawkes), which is in fact just a form of realism; an authenticity accomplished by turning the mirror back on ourselves without any pretense or agenda. The sense of place so captivatingly captured here is a testimony to the skill of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, reminiscent of the manner in which Michael Slovis amplified New Mexico in Breaking Bad, or Patrick Blossier’s work capturing the city of Annecy in Les Revenants. Louisiana, its nuances and adumbral idiosyncrasies, are as much a character on True Detective as those that require water and oxygen for survival.

True Detective is also unique in that it serendipitously presents one of Hollywood’s most notable actors, in Matthew McConaughey, at what is arguably the pinnacle of his career. After a series of amusing but ultimately embarrassing films, McConaughey proceeded to slowly win our graces back with scene-stealing cameos in such films as Tropic Thunder, Magic Mike, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He then proceeded to prove all naysayers wrong with stunning performances in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club. True Detective finds McConaughey at an improbable career peak5 and luckily his partner in crime, Woody Harrelson, is no slouch. Within the shows gritty confines these off-screen cronies elevate each other’s craft to heights previously unimagined on television.

Episode 1, entitled “The Long Bright Dark,” familiarized us with a brand of patient storytelling that will be haunting our thoughts for weeks to come. It introduced us to The Taxman, his cumbrous ledger and unique brand of pessimism. It welcomed us to a maligned corner of the world, a town that’s like the “memory of a town, and the memory’s fading.” And it opened the book on a case, some “Halloween shit,” that will perilously change the life of those tasked in solving it. We have taken the first step into an immersive character study, and in True Detective, as promised, Darkness indeed touches us back. After merely one episode we are left unsettled and hollow, but yet curious and eager for more. We are assuredly onto something special here, a creepy and diabolical journey that is gorgeous and profoundly thought provoking. One thing that all great shows have in common is the preoccupation with meaningful detail, and True Detective holds fast to this idea. Once again, all the pieces matter, and what lies ahead may forever change the way we think about what is possible, in television that is.

 

  1. Something many slighted The Wire as in its early days. []
  2. “I like stories with endings; I like a good third act.” – Nic Pizzolatto []
  3. Pizzolatto has mentioned that future seasons could be about anything “so long as the story centered on the idea of objective truth vs. spoken truth,” one of his many “governing curiosities.” []
  4. “I think human consciousness is a misstep in evolution. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, programmed with total assurance that we are somebody, when in fact we are nobody.” []
  5. He has also been cast as the lead in Christopher Nolan’s next project, Interstellar. []

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