True Detective 1.1 – “The Long Bright Dark”

This review appeared shortly after the initial premiere of True Detective in early 2014 — slight edits have been made since the original posting.

Touch darkness, says the promotional poster for HBO’s latest series True Detective, and darkness touches you back. A tagline like this is all too generic these days, paired with a moody title card or a black-and-white shot of the strong-willed protagonist of a new film or television series. True Detective’s ad campaign has all of that — but one thing to take away from the pilot episode, which aired Sunday night in the US, is that the weighty tagline is rightfully deserved. Spoilers follow for the first episode “The Long Bright Dark”.

Conceived as an anthology series (more on that in a bit), True Detective’s first season stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as newly-paired State Police Detectives in backwater Louisiana. The year is 1995, and the detectives are still operating in an awkward alliance as they begin an investigation into a gruesome murder. The victim’s name is Dora Lange, and it’s already clear that her case is a driving element of this season — and yet the vast majority of “The Long Bright Dark” is spent with McConaughey and Harrelson, and it’s also clear that this is a show that will focus on the character above the plot. The tension in the partnership is nothing revelatory for a cop show: McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is the unconventional but brilliant loner, Harrelson’s Martin Hart is the by-the-numbers family man looking to succeed in his position. These parts are acted perfectly, though, and McConaughey especially deserves to ride high on the wave of critical praise he’s received for recent roles such as this.

And yet, although everything mentioned above would still make True Detective worth watching, the real brilliance is in what’s left of the story. “The Long Bright Dark” spends half of the episode in the present of 2012, where Cohle and Hart are being interviewed separately by new detectives about the events of seventeen years prior. Cohle is being asked about the case, but Hart is being asked about Cohle, and at first it seems the device will simply frame the main narrative, provide hindsight on the events of 1995, events which are the main story. Not so. In what may have been the episode’s best shot (there are many noteworthy ones) and most brilliant moment, director Cary Joji Fukunaga subtly separates the main camera from the poor-quality video camera the 2012 detectives are using to film Cohle. The 2012 element suddenly becomes more than just a framing device: we are now in this world of the present as completely as we are in the world of 1995, and yet the story being told is still a single narrative. Despite seemingly “splitting” the narrative, these two timelines don’t actually unfold as if they are “split”. Rather, as is revealed in the final scene, these two timelines are inextricably a part of the same tale. Despite Cohle’s comment on having apprehended the killer in 1995, another murder victim arises almost twenty years later, killed under the same modus operandi.

There’s a lot to unlock in the pilot episode of True Detective, and while it’s obviously too early to make any plot predictions, Fukunaga and writer Nic Pizzolatto do a fantastic job of rooting the significance out of every word and image. As Cohle mentions by way of explanation regarding his obsessive note-taking at crime scenes, “You never know what the thing’s gonna be, do you?” There’s an overwhelming sense that the missing puzzle piece is here, somewhere, hidden inside this very first episode, but we viewers — along with the characters — lack the lens with which to view it just yet. Several bit players show up in the recounting of the ’95 case — the imprisoned former husband of the deceased, a pastor, a governor. But is everything we see of the ’95 case trustworthy, or has the story been muddled along the way by Cohle, Hart, or both? The tantalizing question of how the past meets the present has already begun the trek inward, closing in on itself, and with seven episodes left the pace of the rest of the show will hopefully keep up with the excellent pilot.

There are many definitions to “anthology series”, but a relatively certain bet is that the second season (should the show continue) will feature a new cast, new writer/director team, and possibly an entirely new setting. This is simultaneously exciting and frustrating — exciting because of the vast possibilities, the ways in which the first season could herald or even link directly to seasons down the line, and frustrating because we have such a short time with the characters we’ve only just been introduced to. But again, there’s so much to unlock in “The Long Bright Dark”, and so few keyholes are visible at this point. True Detective could very well be a lasting, groundbreaking drama series, but for now we have a single case to unravel.

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