Every good television show – every great piece of story telling media – creates a special world that draws you in. A good television show emits a special ambiance that turns the setting of the story into more than the sum of the characters and locations you see on your screen. True Detective is a TV show that takes this to another level not only by populating the world with excellent, memorable characters, but by making the landscape of rural Louisiana in which it takes place into a character unto itself.
True Detective is about two homicide detectives in rural Louisiana and their experiences solving the brutal ritual murder of a young woman. Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) is passionate but practical-minded man whose devotion to his wife and family is occasionally subverted by his sexual trysts with various younger women. Rustin Spencer “Rust” Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) is an emotionally distant philosopher whose strange monologues on the futility of existence frequently anger Martin and confound the higher ups at the police department.
Hart and Cohle must work together to solve the killing of an abused young woman and prostitute named Dora Lange. Dora’s body is found in a field by a lone tree, naked, hog-tied and wearing a pair of deer antlers. Their investigation takes them through the economically depressed backcountry of rural Louisiana. Along the way they meet prostitutes who ply their trade in isolated trailers, charismatic preachers with devious motives, methooking biker gangs and a generally bleak landscape of poverty and neglect that makes the brutal crimes depicted in the show feel somehow expected.
The investigation uncovers what seems to be a widespread conspiracy of ritual child abuse at a now-defunct parochial school run by the Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle, an overwhelming Bible thumper who just so happens to be related to a U.S. Senator. At the same time, Hart and Cohle also catch up with meth-cooking biker gangster Reggie LeDoux, who happens to be the former cell mate of Dora Lange’s ex-husband. When the two sleuths find a dead child and another barely alive at Reggie’s compound, the hot-headed Hart executes Reggie before he can be interrogated for connections to the Lange murder.
Watching True Detective is a whirlwind of a television experience, not only for its violence and its bleak outlook on human nature, but also because of the timespan in which it takes place. The show jumps back and forth between the 1990s and the year 2012, when Hart and Cohle, having long since moved on from the state police force, are invited back to record their experiences on the Lange case in an interview with two much younger detectives. It becomes apparent later on that those younger detectives suspect Cohle (now a private investigator) of several murders that occurred in the ensuing years. This is because Cohle had shadowed investigators during various homicide investigations after he left the force for mysterious reasons that generated suspicion within the department.
Rustin Spencer “Rust” Cohle is one strange guy, to put it mildly. A conversation with Rust will typically turn into a monologue about the futility of human existence. One of his most often-quoted lines from the series is “time is a flat circle,” implying that we are locked into a constant cycle of repeated mistakes and narrow word-views that prevent us from adapting and changing. It is no surprise when we see that he lives alone, his only insight into family life experienced through visits to his partner Hart’s family for dinner. Later, while interviewed in 2012, his appearance has caught up with his personality. His hair and mustache have let themselves go, and he slowly tears apart the beer cans that he drinks during his interview.
Martin Hart appears, at first glance, to be much more emotionally grounded than Cohle. He has a wife and two daughters, and his rejection of Cohle’s meandering ideas doesn’t make him come off as close-minded or idiotic (a choice the writers could have easily made so as to “side” with Cohle.) Yet he also cheats on his wife Maggie with a younger woman. Maggie, oblivious to the affair but frustrated with Martin’s mounting midlife crisis, at one point tries to seduce Cohle, which leads to a split between the two detectives.
Tone And Style
As mentioned previously, the landscape of rural Louisiana is almost a character in and of itself. This is due in large part to the cinematographer’s preference for long, still shots that force us to not only contemplate what the characters are doing, but the landscape as well. None of the quick, shaky camera movements so typical of modern film and television obscures this landscape, and as a result we are forced to focus in on the aesthetically unsettling world that echoes the unsettling events of the plot.
One common criticism of True Detective is that the characters other than Martin and Rust are very flat and undeveloped. This is especially true of the female characters, which are frequently reduced to sex objects, spineless victims or bitter scolds. In addition, the use of Cohle as a detached philosopher judging reality from the sidelines appears to be for the benefit of a viewing audience that is, on average, not from rural Louisiana. It’s not surprising that that audience (and the writers who cater to it) may have certain ill-founded stereotypes about what it must be like to live there.
But even with these criticisms in mind, it’s easy to be pulled into True Detective Season 1. You’ll be left feeling enchanted, and perhaps a little haunted. Watch True Detective Season 1 online now, and stay tuned for True Detective Season 2, set in California and due for release Summer 2015.