March 10, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “True Detective”


Since the TV cop show has come of age–a process that began back in the days of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, but has accelerated greatly in recent years–there have been repeated attempts to push the limits of the genre, to tell more novelistic stories that are as much about character and setting and theme as about whodunit, with recent efforts that include The Killing, The Bridge, Top of the Lake and Broadchurch.  These kinds of shows won’t ever be to every viewer’s taste, because almost by definition they’re slower-paced and more atmospheric (some would also say more pretentious) than ordinary cop shows, but the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE, which concluded on HBO tonight, has probably been the most successful of these serious-minded thrillers.

True Detective benefited, of course, from having HBO in its corner, the original pioneer of auteurist television, and also from the very unusual consistency of having series creator Nic Pizzolatto write, and Cary Joji Fukunaga direct, every one of its 8 episodes.  (Even Aaron Sorkin pretends to have a writing staff.)  What really clicked for Detective, though, was its anthology structure.  The fact that this storyline and these characters were one-and-done didn’t only mean that anything could happen in the course of its story, because no one had to be around for Season 2 (which hasn’t yet been ordered, but which is all but a certainty once an A-level cast has been signed up), but it allowed Pizzolatto to roam through time in a way that an ordinary series can’t.

True Detective took place over a period of 17 years, and not in a strictly linear way; until the last few hours, each episode existed both in the present day, as ex-detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), no longer part of the Louisiana State Police, were interrogated by current officers, and in the past of their original investigations–which didn’t always coincide with the account they were giving the modern cops.  The passage of time was part of the show’s story and theme, as it explored the way trauma, failure and experience create reverberations throughout a lifetime, and the possibilities of change with age.

All of this paid off in the season finale, which both followed and confounded genre expectations, as well as the expectations of viewers.  Early in the series, there had been some feeling that Pizzolatto was just using the conventions of a serial killer storyline as an excuse for philosophical ruminations, with no real interest in the satisfactions of the genre, but the final hour of True Detective brought back memories of such classics as David Fincher’s Se7en, as Rust and Marty finally tracked down their Yellow King, housepainter, handyman and groundskeeper (and unacknowledged child of the local elite) Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), and stalked him from the wrecked family estate where he lived with his apparent half-sister (Ann Dowd, unrecognizable from Masters of Sex) through the obsessively maintained setting of his crimes, an obstacle course of his gnarled tree sculptures.  (A moment for kudos to cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who avoided the cliche of killing fields photographed in near-darkness and provided a well-lit hell for Errol’s playground.)  The final confrontation between Rust, Marty and Errol was as grand guignol as one could have wanted, with knives buried in bellies, an axe to the chest, and a head blown off.

The confounding part was that all this came 20 minutes before the end of the hour, which then returned to its meditational form to focus on its real heart, the true souls of its detective.  Perhaps even more surprising was that both men survived (as Marty said of Rust, “It occurs to me that you’re unkillable”), and even healed, and that there was, at long last, a hint of optimism in Rust’s relentlessly nihilistic worldview, as he observed that the light in the world was beating back the darkness.  The story of True Detective wasn’t so much the hunt for a killer–as both men knew, others more powerful who were involved in Errol’s mutilation and rape of children would never be apprehended–as the journey that its heroes went on through their own hearts of darkness.

Although True Detective had a very fine supporting cast (headed by Michelle Monaghan as the woman in both detectives’ lives), and first-rate technical contributions down the line (the music, both by composer T. Bone Burnett and the preexisting songs used, were particularly striking), in the end the show came down to the inspiration of four men.  Novelist Pizzolatto’s only prior television writing had been a couple of episodes of The Killing, and it’s perhaps fitting that his solo work here became the show that one was never able to be, both gripping and probing, and sometimes quite droll (Marty’s interpretation of Rust’s invocation of “sentient” meat in the finale as “scented” was rather great).  Fukunaga, whose previous work had been in the indie world of Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre, proved himself not only to be skilled at handling extended dialogue sequences with the actors (the car was the most-used set in the show), but had the chops, when called upon, to deliver the dazzling single-shot action sequence that concluded episode 4, and the mayhem of the finale.

Matthew McConaughey has had a year for the ages, with an Oscar newly on his mantle, but even his extraordinary work in Dallas Buyers Club wouldn’t fully prepare one for the depth and assurance of his performance here, tossing off complex philosophical reveries like they were one-liners (and tossing off one-liners too, when the script called for them) and even more important, making Rust’s pain as clear as his crimesolving arrogance.  Harrelson was no less superb, building dimensions of bluff self-protection around Marty’s destructiveness, although Marty wasn’t conceived with quite the originality of Rust. (It was a nice touch of Pizzolatto’s, though, to make Marty the one who finally cracks the case.)

True Detective required patience, and a willingness to take some deep thinking with its shootouts and Eureka! moments of detecting.  For those who wanted to make the trip, though, this meat was pretty damn sentient.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."