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Midseason TV review: "True Detective" makes case for being best show on television

Posted by Jesse Tigges | February 17, 2014 12:10 PM

“True Detective” is making one hell of a case for being the best show on television, and last Sunday’s utterly fantastic episode could be construed as Exhibit A; a landmark outing, particularly for the nail-biting climax, but also because everything preceding it was simply brilliant.

Initially, “True Detective” relied on the indelible performance of Matthew McConaughey as tortured detective Rust Cohle for the strength of its narrative. Don’t get me wrong, Woody Harrelson as Cohle’s exasperated partner Martin Hart has been great too, but the first two episodes were dominated by McConaughey.

The last two episodes gave Harrelson’s Marty depth. It had been bubbling under the surface since the beginning when Martycalled himself, “A regular guy … with a big-ass dick.” But now that we’ve seen Marty doesn’t have it together like he pretends, the parallels between him and Cohle are fascinating.

“True Detective” is fundamentally about these men and how this job, and the personality required for such a job, has formed them. The crux has become how these two man can’t be anything other than what they are: mentally unstable narcissists — bad men — expertly cut out for keeping other bad men from the door.

As we’ve learned more about these bad men, each episode of “True Detective” has exceeded the previous one, but the question is whether this momentum will continue to the finale. Having seen three more episodes — all but the finale — I can say no episode matches the sheer brilliance of “Who Goes There” because that would be nearly impossible (it ranks up there with the likes of “Breaking Bad’s” final season crescendo “Ozymandias”). But the remainder of the season is still exceptional.

So I’m going to review “Who Goes There” specifically before briefly discussing the next three episodes — spoiler free because I’m not the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch — and then delving into why “True Detective” may have changed the TV landscape by being nearly perfectly executed from every aspect: writing, directing and acting.

Following up a powerhouse third episode, “The Locked Room,” which ended on an unforgettable cliffhanger — in case you forgot, it had a tighty-whitey clad meth cook wearing a gas mask and wielding a machete that screamed, “Take that, Walter White!” — “Who Goes There” spins the story back to tracking the main suspect, Reggie Ledoux. While that investigation is driving the overall narrative, more importantly the episode is stockpiled with watershed moments for our two protagonists.

For Marty, things couldn’t get much worse. His proudly-constructed life and identity as a family man is crumbling around him as his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) finds out about his affair. Bags are packed, notes are left and ill-advised phone calls and drunken hospital visits are made.

It’s understandable that Marty would be in this depressing place because he knows best that he did this to himself. It’s why he’s been so incensed every time Rust calls him out for being a heel; deep down Marty knows exactly who he is, but refuses to accept it. Marty may not be as screwed up as Rust, but he’s got some serious issues (mostly with alcohol and his penis) that he ignores, while Rust knows he’s the monster at the end of his own nightmare and has merely decided to welcome that “deep and dark” part of his identity.

If Marty is having his own personal identity crisis, Rust is revealed to have a literal bi-polar identity. Once he pulls out his toolbox filled with firearms and Jameson, it’s obvious Rust and his undercover alter-ego “Crash” are one in the same. Rust merely pushes “Crash” in an internal locked room, but the second he gets the chance to let that persona out he’s gung-ho to do so (after Marty gets a tip on the whereabouts of Reggie Ledoux at that brilliantly shot rave by director Cary Joji Fukunaga, whom I’ll discuss further down).

In fact, seeing him swill Jameson with Marty at the bar — in what may be the finest Rust-Marty conversation of the series to date — Rust actually seems at peace, instead of the tortured soul spouting existential madness we’ve come to know (and love?) so well. It’s clear Rust needs a case, specifically the ritualistic murder of Dora Lange, to keep from flying off into the ether of his hallucinations and psychosis. He’s “normal” when he has something else to focus his mind on. Or, maybe he’s “normal” when he has drugs and alcohol to keep his mind in check.

When Rust joins up with the bikers and embraces “the outlaw life” he’s too naturally playing the part. If Rust didn’t become a detective, he’d be the most feared criminal on the planet. Thankfully, Rust does have a moral compass — no matter how skewed — and we see it when he learns what he’ll have to do to connect with Reggie Ledoux. Rust doesn’t want to take part in the stash house raid because he knows the chaos it will cause. It’s why he hides that kid in the bathtub.

And chaos is the best way to describe that stash house shootout climax. “Who Goes There” has one of the finest action set-pieces I’ve seen, on TV or film, in a long time. Fukunaga has been killing it with his camera work throughout, but Rust dragging Ginger through the projects was utterly amazing. Even more impressive is that Fukunaga executed the sequence in a single take. Wow! As much as I’ve been blown away by creator and sole writer Nic Pizzolatto’s words and the performances by McConaughey and Harrelson, Fukunaga might be the most impressive of the core group.

There’s no doubt about it, “Who Goes There” was an episode for the ages that surely has “True Detective” fans chomping at the bit for more. Can you expect it to keep getting better? The next three episodes — no spoilers I promise — are near perfection, mainly because “True Detective” operates and follows through with the novelistic storytelling established in the first half of the season.

There is less character development for Rust and Marty individually, mainly because the audience has gotten to know them pretty well. Instead we learn more about their partner relationship, which has only been hinted at so far. There’s also a bit more of a focus on the investigation aspect, which hasn’t been my favorite part of “True Detective” but it’s still very well done.

Everything still rests squarely on Rust and Marty. The lone quibble I have about “True Detective” is the lack of fleshed-out supporting characters, but I’m fairly certain that’s intentional. Both Rust and Marty have myopic views on life, so it’s appropriate the audience would be watching from only their point of view.

Nothing is quite as explosive or revealing for the two main characters in the next few episodes as what transpires in “Who Goes There,” but there are some big moments. Pizzolatto’s narrative expertly balances the development of Rust and Marty, this time as a relationship, with the movement of the murder investigation. Audiences will still be hooked.

This is where “True Detective” (and thusly Pizzolatto) could have a huge ripple effect on television programming. HBO has been in the situation of setting a standard so high that every other channel tries to replicate it. Once “The Sopranos” became an award-winning mega-hit, television was changed forever. Many see “The Sopranos” as the beginning of the Golden Age of television, and the best TV dramas since then exist because “The Sopranos” paved the road.

“True Detective” could have a similar effect, even if it’s not quite as popular as “The Sopranos.” Still, “True Detective” is the most talked-about, buzziest, water cooler show on right now. And since the series will submit for awards in the mini-series category — “True Detective” is billed as an anthology series similar to “American Horror Story” where each season will be a contained story — it will win EVERYTHING in the next year. It’ll be fun to see which series wins more major awards in the 2014 awards season, “True Detective” or “Breaking Bad.”

So with “True Detective” being a hit (as much as a premium cables series can be) and a critical success (minus Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, who voices his disdain for the show honestly and intelligently even if I don’t agree), coupled with winning buckets of awards, network executives are going to take notice and seriously consider more anthology-type series.

And there’s one other big factor, well two really. McConaughey and Harrelson. McConaughey is probably the hottest actor on the planet right now. He’s on an incredible streak of great performances, will win an Oscar in a few weeks, is starring in the new Christopher Nolan movie later this year and will win an Emmy and Golden Globe for his performance in “True Detective.” He’s about as big of an A-lister as there is in Hollywood. And Harrelson is no slouch either; one of the great character actors working today. To land these two names for the first “True Detective” season is incredible.

With the quality the series has displayed so far, the sky is the limit for who Pizzolatto and HBO get to star in Season 2. (Rumor has it that Fukunaga is being scouted for multiple films and could be unavailable for Season 2. Bummer!) Christian Bale? Uh, f--- yeah! Bryan Cranston? He’s currently without a TV show. Ed Norton? He did a phone commercial, so this would be a big step up. Michael Fassbender? “True Detective” in Germany sounds cool. You get the idea.

So don’t be surprised if you begin to see more mini-series/anthology series in the future. Just don’t expect it to be as good as “True Detective.” In fact, expect something more along the lines of the first modern anthology on U.S. television, “American Horror Story” — something dumbed down and easy for mass audiences to watch.

If you’ve been pleased by “True Detective” so far, it continues to be one of the best series on TV as it heads to the conclusion. I have no idea how this season will end, but I’m guessing it’s going to be amazing. Similarly, where “True Detective” goes after Season 1 is anyone’s guess, but again I’m guessing it’s going to be amazing.  

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