In the past few year one could say that media criticism has leaned towards notion that television is the new cinema (in a manner of speaking). With shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Mad Men, it is clear that the medium of televised fiction programming is demonstrating a higher quality of acting, writing, and even cinematography than that of the status quo of yesteryear. In turn television shows are also attracting the attention of big Hollywood names in way we have not seen before. HBO’s recently concluded debut season of True Detective is no exception to this pattern of media transcendent television.
Set over the course of nearly two decades, the 8 episode season is the first in what is expected to be an anthology crime show. It follows the lives of Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Marty Hart (played by Mathew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), Louisiana detectives investigating the ritualistic murder of a prostitute that winds up connecting to several murders across the entire state over the course of years, even after supposedly gunning down their killer in an unsanctioned raid on his meth den. What started out a murder case for a dead hooker becomes a conspiracy with possible government ties surrounding a cult led by the mysterious “Yellow King of Carcosa.” The show builds the haunting atmosphere of a classic southern gothic through sweeping crane shots of the desolate fields of dead trees, placid lakes, slums and industrial factories (aided by it’s dark, brooding musical score). The occult imagery throughout the show (sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden) creates a sense of foreboding as the two detectives get deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding Carcosa and it’s Yellow King. The standout of of the show, aside from it’s stellar production value, is the acting, particularly that of it’s two leads. McConaughey is fascinating as the brilliant, nihilistic and damaged Rust. Meanwhile Harrelson shines as the alpha male Marty struggling to compartmentalize his job, his affairs and his family (to disastrous ends). Both actors bring their characters to life in a dizzying display of nuance, subtlety and charm. It’s difficult where to determine that character begins and ends between the phenomenal performances and the fantastic writing. The plotting of the mystery is structured well, making for an engaging unfolding of details as the shows pushes on, but it’s the fully realized, 3-dimensional characters that make the story worth telling.
It’s disappointing that the finale, “Form & Void,” will most likely be the last we see of these characters and their stories, due to the anthology structure of the show. However, as long as the creative team, specifically the shows creator Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga (who directed every episode) remain in the writing room and behind the camera, continuing to attract the caliber of talent precedent end by McConaughey and Harrelson, I have high hopes for the coming seasons. Cinema may not have died, or be in any particular danger of doing so, but it certainly has competition as the dominant medium of quality storytelling and spectacle.