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Warning: This review does feature some non-specified spoilers

In 2012, Louisiana State Police Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are brought in to revisit a homicide case they worked in 1995. As the inquiry unfolds in present day through separate interrogations, the two former detectives narrate the story of their investigation, reopening unhealed wounds, and drawing into question their supposed solving of a bizarre ritualistic murder of ‘95. The timelines braid and converge in 2012 as each man is pulled back into a world they believed they'd left behind. In learning about each other and their killer, it becomes clear that darkness lives on both sides of the law. (From HBO’s official synopsis)

 True Detective: Season One
‘People – so goddamn frail they'd rather put a coin in the wishing well than buy dinner.’

There was a time not long ago when HBO was so far ahead of their network and basic cable counterparts in serialized drama that it didn’t even seem like a contest. The station’s slogan ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO’ actually made sense – shows like The Sopranos, Oz, and even Sex and the City (I know…I know…) really did seem beyond the limitations of television. But times change and being ahead of the curve doesn’t count anymore when everyone else catches up. While Game of Thrones has become the studio’s ‘game changer’ in terms of serialized storytelling (more for subject matter than style), Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective feels like HBO’s first legitimately important format modification in many years. In only eight episodes, it’s too short and too self-contained to match the precedents set by current US television standards (even the other recent anthology series, American Horror Story, takes 13 episodes to craft its significantly more episodic story). The proper associative term would be ‘mini-series’ – a format HBO found major success in when they made Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon – but True Detective is different. Like its UK and Scandinavian counterparts, it’s more of a visualized novel that tells a story too long for a standalone feature runtime without stretching it to the expectations of most mini-series events.

Pizzolatto, a novelist and former teacher of fiction & literature who takes the sole writing credit on every single episode (a rarity for any television show), appears to have developed the concrete facts of his mystery, then worked backwards to deconstruct it. He delivers upon the expectations of a procedural cop show while subverting them with deliberate pacing that spans 17 years and a focus on character impact over the technicalities of detective work. This includes the long, impassive streams of frustrating bureaucracy and discouraging dead ends that cripple real-life murder investigations. True Detective also poses a series of fascinating philosophical and theological questions which offer thematic texture without requiring its audience to invest in fully understanding them – though connecting these to story themes on a second viewing is certainly a rewarding process.

 True Detective: Season One
I assume (without reading any interviews on the subject or delving into this Blu-ray set’s special features) that Pizzolatto was inspired in some part by Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Both films are based on real-life, unsolved murders and span several year periods in the lives of the people charged with finding the killers. Because the murders were unsolved, both movies also challenged their audiences by ending without resolutions. True Detective does end with a resolution, but not one that was easy to parse. Many viewers, fans and detractors alike, complained that the killer’s identity and motives were too conventional. It’s true that Pizzolatto seems to be building to some kind of Wicker Man-level village conspiracy that never quite materializes and I agree that the things that make the conspiracy unique in the end seem incidental once the major killer’s identity is revealed. But Pizzolatto also implies that the murders themselves are incidental, at least in comparison to their impact on the detectives Rust and Marty – a point that is hammered home when they try to catch-up after years apart and we realize how empty their lives were without each other. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (who, like Pizzolatto, takes a solo credit for every single episode in the season) gives us a good show of the final confrontation (one of the most brilliantly brutal brush-ups I’ve ever seen on television), but the episode goes on quite a bit after the battle is over and the case is resolved.

Whether or not the viewer accepts this resolution is entirely up to their subjective viewpoint, which leads us to another of True Detective’s virtues as a series – it’s not going to hold anyone’s hand through a series of plot points, rather, it’s going to show you the pieces of the puzzle and trust you to put them together. On the other hand, I appreciate the frustration felt by some viewers, because to watch True Detective is to invest in it entirely. The first two or three episodes are unveiled with a conscious listlessness that sets a baseline precedent for what counts as normal in the show’s universe. Re-watching the season for this review didn’t make those slow episodes move any faster, but their lethargy did make more sense once I understood of the important thematic role that the slow, painful passage of time plays in the show. Perhaps the oft-quoted Nietzschean line about time being a flat circle doesn’t only apply to repeating motifs within the series. Maybe the familiar, tired tropes of those early episodes are part of Pizzolatto’s greater meaning. Or maybe it just took more time for the show to find its footing. Whatever the reason, I do hope new viewers stick it out with my assurance that the drama gets more urgent as the season continues.

 True Detective: Season One
Southern Gothic and Neo-Noir are both stylistic categories that have been somewhat overexposed in the last few decades (HBO’s other ‘True’ show, True Blood, has already spent six seasons blending gothic traditions with Louisiana locales). To counteract the familiarity, True Detective embraces our visual knowledge of both the American South and post-modern noir filmmaking. It’s a beautifully shot and incredibly cinematic series, but Fukunaga and his collaborators spend the majority of their time downplaying production design and flashy camera work. They find dread in authenticity and offer glimpses of the horrors beneath the normality in the form of the killer’s motifs (especially his post-mortem memento moris). These give the audience a taste of the morbidly baroque assault awaiting them in the final episode (which also features the show’s most cryptic and controversial image). Fukunaga’s finest achievements as a director are often expertly obscured as to not draw attention away from the performances and plot, but I doubt even the least studious viewer could miss the technical swagger on display during the final moments of episode four, Who Goes There, when a violent gang war erupts without a single cut for more than six minutes.

As far as I’m concerned, True Detective’s biggest hurdles are endless comparisons to Hannibal – a similarly philosophical and artistically ambitious subversion of procedural tropes that beat it to television screens by about eight months. The two shows have many superficial similarities (like deer horn motifs), but share the most in common between two of their lead actors. Hannibal’s Will Graham is a mentally ill outsider with an almost supernatural penchant for empathizing with the criminal mind. True Detective’s Rust Cohle is a similarly disturbed and brilliant criminal profiler that is ostracized by his peers for antisocial behavior. Both Will and Rust are also suspected of committing some of the crimes they are investigating. The key difference, besides the characters’ opposing neurodevelpmental disorders (one is too empathetic while the other seems incapable of empathy), is that Will is an immediately sympathetic character, whereas Rust is abrasive, occasionally even cruel. Pizzolatto encourages his audience to laugh at and be frustrated by Rust’s pretentious and obsessions via the reactions of other, more amenable characters (Fukunaga hammers home Rust’s anachronistic obsessions by staging his introductory interview before a wall of obsolete office machinery). He eases us into the character’s unique mindset until we are obsessed and, eventually, profoundly moved by it. Matthew McConaughey’s performance is key to the character’s success and quite possibly the best thing the actor has ever done, including his Oscar-winning appearance in Dallas Buyer’s Club, which he had just completed prior to beginning work on True Detective.

 True Detective: Season One
With Rust filling the role of the enigmatic genius, Woody Harrelson’s character, Detective Marty Hart, is left to fill the role of audience surrogate (especially in the first episode, where he constant calls Rust out on his opaque poetic statements). Pizzolatto remains committed to defying expectations, so slowly deflates Marty’s sympathetic qualities and begins sidelining him in favour of Rust’s point of view. It’s a clever move that forces both the audience and their surrogate to identify with the crazy guy, but also problematic, because much of the time spent outside of Rust’s direct influence begins to feel like time wasted. Some of Marty’s character flaws, specifically the meandering infidelity subplots, feel too route for this series. These serve an important thematic function – unlike Rust, Marty has an active home life at risk and the tribulations of his work have a lasting effect on his family – but it isn’t necessary to the function, especially given the show’s proclivity for only giving us as much knowledge as we need to fill in the gaps on the murders themselves (which occur entirely outside of the audience’s POV until the final episode). Harrelson’s performance more than makes up for the dips in momentum, but the actors attached to his side of the story – who make up the vast majority of the female cast, including Michelle Monaghan, Alexandra Daddario, and Erin Moriarty – seem wasted as ancillary objects that prove his frail humanity. It seems that this shortcoming was not entirely lost on Pizzolatto, who plans on centering season two on women, instead of men.

 True Detective: Season One

Video


‘I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.’

In keeping with its ‘authentic’ flavour, True Detective is shot on 35mm film and it is presented on this Blu-ray in 1.78:1, 1080p video. This is another typically beautiful HD release from HBO that spreads all eight episodes (480 minutes) over three discs, instead of the one or two most studios would aim for. The filmic look accounts for a little grain and some slightly fuzzy background details, but the gradations tend to be pretty smooth and the harder edges are crisp without more than a hint of haloing. With the exception of the digital video images that kick off the interview segments (which are pixilated and tinted by blue fluorescent lights), the series’ look is pretty consistent in terms of clarity, colour-timing, and detail levels. Daylight scenes and well-lit interiors glow with the diffused haze of a perpetually overcast sky. These scenes tend to have the richest colours and sharpest details (to the detriment of the greenscreen composite effects), often with a slightly yellow tint. Dusk, dawn, and darker interiors are softer with desaturated lavender hues and the darkest nighttime sequences feature stronger contrast levels, deeper blacks, and even cooler tints . The natural look doesn’t entirely negate the possibility of more stylized gels and lights, such as the vivid neons of barroom and skating rink sequences. The long take in episode four is also more aggressively colourful, because of the orange qualities of the streetlights. There are slight tonal differentiations between the 1995, 2002, and 2012 scenes (’95 is busier, ’02 and‘12 are generally cleaner), but Fukunaga and series cinematographer Adam Arkapaw tend to let the period production design do the work for them.

 True Detective: Season One

Audio


‘Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.’

While watching True Detective on the HBO GO stream, I was only able to make it work in stereo. I figured I wasn’t missing all that much, considering the show’s relative lack of action, but it turns out I had neglected an entire symphony of subtle directional and immersive effects. Many of these noises are simply ambience, like swamp bugs and bar noise, but there are plenty of aggressive moments as well. Episode four’s extended take is an especially expressive practice in audio design as it completely envelops the audience in perfectly tuned aural chaos. Shouting voices, screaming bystanders, and roving helicopters move throughout the channels based on the camera’s location and are muffled by the subjective sound of ringing when gunshots go off too close to Rust’s ears. The final episode’s horror-show pursuit and capture and Rust’s drug-induced hallucinations also add layers of more abstract noise that blend into the musical score. The series music was composed and supervised by T. Bone Burnett, the same guy behind many of the best Coen Brothers soundtracks. His original compositions tend to be discordant tonal textures, rather than proper themes, while his catalogue of pop/rock/folk choices are either given a full-channel punch or appropriately disappear into the background of a scene.

 True Detective: Season One

Extras


  • Inside the Episode (4:10, 4:00, 4:10, 4:50, 4:30, 4:30, 4:30, 5:10; HD; Discs 1, 2, and 3) – A series of cast and crew interviews that were originally available alongside each episode as they appeared on HBO GO (most HBO shows have something similar).
  • Deleted Scenes (6:20 and 3:40; HD; Disc 1 and 3) – Deleted footage from episodes three and eight.
  • Two commentary tracks, both on Disc 2:
    • Episode Four: [I]Who Goes There – Series creator/executive producer/writer Nic Pizzolatto and composer T Bone Burnett
    • Episode Five: The Secret Fate of All Life – Pizzolato, Burnett, and executive producer Scott Stephens
  • Making True Detective (15:00, HD, Disc 3) – A rough, EPK style that features behind-the-scenes footage and additional interviews. It’s pretty fluffy, but does give some insight into the writing and production development, like casting, location shooting, art direction, and the arduous process of episode four’s extended take.
  • Up Close with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (8:00, HD) – Four interview excerpts where the actors discuss specific scenes from the series.
  • A Conversation with Nic Pizzolatto and T Bone Burnett (14:30, HD) – The writer/creator and composer interview each other about their parts in the series.


 True Detective: Season One

Overall


‘Once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning.’

True Detective is a thoroughly rewarding experience in long form storytelling that is at once instantly recognizable and entirely alien. The first couple episodes take their time setting the cerebral tone that may antagonize some viewers, but I highly recommend that frustrated audiences stick through to episode four before giving up. HBO’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds spectacular, much better than the already solid HBO GO streaming versions I had already seen, but the extras are a little underwhelming, at least compared to some of the more comprehensive special features that have adorned recent releases from the studio.

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

 True Detective: Season One

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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