True Detective Series Premiere Review: A Puzzle That Reinvents the Crime Drama

By Tim Surette

Jan 13, 2014

True Detective S01E01: "The Long Bright Dark"

HBO's new crime drama True Detective isn't a happy show. In fact, it's the pits and may just chew you up and spit out your bones. Yet the excruciatingly dreary premiere episode was captivating once you realized what you were watching. And thank god, because television has been worn down with the serial-killer genre to the point that there are no more red herrings left in the television cliché ocean. Despite ostensibly being about a 17-year-old murder case and the possibility of its killer on the loose again in present day, True Detective is about the two complicated and broken men who supposedly solved the case all those years back. Come for the ritualistic murder, stay for the dark examination of one forever out-of-place weirdo genius and the partner he routinely frustrates who may not be as good as he thinks he is. 

At least that's what we think we know from just the first episode. Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are two Louisiana detectives in an oil-and-vinegar partnership. Hart is the happier of the two ("happy" is a relative term here), a man with a family but maybe not a family man, who admits he's not the smartest person out there but he at least knows how to talk to people. Cohle appears to be only visiting our planet, an introvert and pessimist whose personality quirks allow him to get into that messy headspace that makes him good at figuring out the murderin' that's going on. 

Big deal, right? Plenty of serial-killer dramas attempt to dig into the psyche of the hunters as well as the hunted. But True Detective commits to that cause and delivers it with its neat presentation. The series hops between Hart and Cohle in 1995 when they first investigated and closed a case, and 2012 when it looks like that case wasn't quite shut closed enough after a new girl shows up dead in the same fashion as the 1995 case. In 2012, Hart moved on from the job and is into private investigation but is relatively the same decent man he claims to be at his core, and a truck ran over Cohle's career and life, transforming him into a beer-swigging recluse with a sweet handlebar 'stache. Knowing the beginning point and the end point in the timeline, the question is no longer "Whodunnit?" but "Whodeseguys?" What happened to their relationship that forced their falling out in 2002? Did the case rip these two apart, or did something else happen? How much is truth, and how much is bent to support their own recollection? And somewhere down the line, who is killing these girls?

It's a construct that taps into our puzzle-box curiosity, and I'd bet that layers of mystery will peel back as the series progresses. By separating Hart and Cohle in detective interviews in 2012, both of their perspectives, whether they're correct or not, are shown to us and the story unfolded through their recollection. And it's through listening to their sides of the story and their takes on each other and placing them against what we see in flashbacks that really showed us who these men are. 

Though "The Long Bright Dark" focused mostly on getting to know Cohle and his mouthfuls of wordy Nihilistic buzzkilling doom ("It's all just one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space"), there were moments where Hart, who we're led to believe is the least worrisome of the two, exhibited even more darkness. Early in the episode, Hart criticized Cohle by saying, "Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing." And Hart says this because he believes he can look at Cohle and pinpoint what he thinks is wrong with him based on the way Hart lives his own life. Yet it was Hart who had the family and slept in the living room, waking up to his wife asking him questions and quickly shuffling off to work. And it was Hart who had that suspicious visit from an attractive young clerk delivering depositions that were for his eyes only (he's giving her his own private deposition, right?). It makes you wonder which is worse, Cohle's pessimism and alcoholism or Hart's hypocrisy and inflated sense of self. True Detective seeks to examine the bad in men that bubbles just under the surface of the faces they wear day in and out. 

It's tough to center a series on a pair of dudes who aren't all that likable. Let's be honest here, they're both dicks in their own way. But in the hands of Harrelson and McConaughey, they're fascinating. Watching Hart's patience disintegrate from Cohle's constant gloom offers the only levity in True Detective, and it's hilarious. 

Cohle: "I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms I'm a pessimist."
Hart: "What's that mean?"
Cohle: "It means I'm bad at parties." 
Hart: "You ain't good outside of parties either." 

And as Cohle goes on and on with chatter about reprogramming human nature and putting the kibosh on procreation so that we'll all just fade out of existence, it's Hart's reactions that bring the show back to Earth out of Cohle's orbit. I'm fascinated by Cohle's odd philosophy and the damage (his dead daighter and broken marriage) that got him there. But I side with Hart when he says things like, "Stop saying shit like that, it's unprofessional" because Cohle is annoying as heck. Imagine being stuck on a long car ride with Cohle. You'd probably drive your car off a bridge the second his depressing psycho-babble spilled out of his mouth. Yet the two are stuck together, and Hart has no choice but to respect Cohle's brilliance as a detective.

However, there's no denying that True Detective is sloooooooow. Like checking to see if your DVR is on pause slow. But there was a steady stream of interesting points unlocked along the way for those who are invested, and it paid off. I watched the first episode twice; the first time, I dozed off (in my defense it was right after our annual Thanksgiving: The Sequel holiday meal). The second time, I was riveted. There might be some critical mass that needs to be reached in order to fully appreciate True Detective, and if you didn't get there from the first episode, I'd encourage another try.

In the final moments of "The Long Bright Dark," the detectives interviewing Hart and Cohle reveal that a murder they're investigating showed the same M.O. as Hart and Cohle's case from 1995 and it gives True Detective a jolt right in the plot. But it's Cohle's reaction to learning about it and being asked for his assistance in the case that made me eager for more True Detective. "Then start asking the right fucking questions." And we should do the exact same. Was the case closed prematurely? Did Cohle have anything to do with the murders? Are either of these men trustworthy? Who is the real bad guy here? The more I think about the episode, the more I can't wait to see the rest. This will be one fun puzzle to solve.



CASE NOTES

True Detective's fragmented storytelling could have been a mess, but it unfolds in such a way that it works really well. The reason it's so successful is that we're less interested in what happened, and more interested in how it happened, not to mention how it affects the two characters' relationships. Everything comes together as a more coherent character study than a crime drama.

– Cary Fukunaga did a fantastic job directing and bringing the setting to life. This is a gorgeous piece of television, and makes me want to see it in high-def (the screeners HBO sends out are of iffy DVD quality). 

– Nic Pizzolatto, who used to write for The Killing, created and wrote the entire series. Because of television's intense production schedules, it's rare for an entire series to be written and directed by the same people, but I think True Detective will be a case study for making it the norm. A series can only improve when it has singular visions on the page and behind the camera.

– It was nice of Clarke Peters to drop by as the priest! Always great to see him on television. 

– Each season of True Detective—should it get more than one season—will feature a new set of characters and a new mystery. Just like American Horror Story. Hopefully a second season would also draw a high-caliber cast. 

– There are a lot of reviews out there from critics who've already seen the first four episodes, but I'm trying to show restraint and watch them one at a time with you guys because I like you. That way we'll be on the same wavelength as I cover these episodically.


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  • woz22 Mar 01, 2014

    I only started watching this due to the trailer i thought it was going to be another hannibal clone and now that turned out too gory not enough story. To my susprise this is brilliant dark but stick with it as the characters are well drawn and not one dimensional. I will keep watching!

  • cheriross75 Jan 20, 2014

    This is my new favorite tv show. I love this kind of intellectually challenging character study, with a possible seral killer throw in the mix. I agee with Tim that a second watching will be worthwhile.

  • cheriross75 Jan 20, 2014

    Sorry, I meant thrown in the mix, not throw in the mix.

  • carlabeatlesgg Jan 20, 2014

    I miss The Killing soooo much!!!

  • smithinjapan Jan 19, 2014

    Brilliantly done, and talk about a stellar class! Definitely looking forward to more.

  • smithinjapan Jan 22, 2014

    Oops! I meant "stellar cast", not class.

  • anacletoagent Jan 17, 2014

    McConaughey & Harrelson are executive producers in this project. Makes me think next seasons to come are not gonna be as brilliant somehow...I mean, these guys have big money invested in this season, and it's probably just for this season.

  • Ashja Jan 17, 2014

    ...slow?? It's MESMERIZING!!!!!!!!!!! I was captured by the puzzle story, the character, the acting.. in some point I feel a little lost on the event, but nothing too big.
    Both Harrelson and McConaughey did an amazing job.. I'm not in the comedy or romantic stuff, so I barely know his name, but then I see Matthew in "Killer Joe" and that was a revelation.. insane, funny, tragic, creepy movie.. a must see!

  • ben45tpy Jan 17, 2014

    Fascinating show, I really like it already.

  • Dudekotka Jan 16, 2014

    The characters got me right into the story, and I couldn't stand The Killing or any show like it (If we're going broad, Hannibal did, as did early Dexter) due to the slow nature, mediocre cases, and cliche characters. This has none of those problems, it's great looking, well acted, and both the case and the characters seem to be interesting and well rounded.

  • SamadArastu Jan 16, 2014

    This show is not "slow".
    In fact, I was glued right from the beginning to the end.
    The acting is INCREDIBLE (the cast is almost unbelievable). The writing, directing, cinematography, etc. is awesome. I watch a lot of shows but this one is something special. I don't know about you guys, but I'm looking forward to an incredible season.
    Also, Young Men Dead was the icing on the cake.

  • CarolineEmili Jan 17, 2014

    Exactly!! Wach a lot of stuff, too, last time I felt like this watching a show was with Twin Peaks and Carnivale. Looking forward to the rest of the season!!

  • CarolineEmili Jan 17, 2014

    Forgot to mention Hannibal. Loved that one, too.

  • ElisaDiaz Jan 16, 2014

    Very good opening titles!

    I found it difficult at the very beginning, but I come from The Killing and I loved that show. After you get into it, this has a similar rythm. So this might be for me. I was a bit worried that solving the crime would take for ever and ever, so I'm glad to hear that it is a new story every season. I like that formula so much. It doesn't allow later changes of heart that would perpetuate a story till is crap.

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