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Looking Back on ‘True Detective’

| Thursday, March 20, 2014

detective WEBKeri O'Mara | The Observer
When it premiered on HBO in January, “True Detective” immediately jumped to the top of the list of must-watch Sunday-night television. Set in rural Louisiana, the anthology series stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, who are investigating the murder of local woman Dora Lange. What set it apart from the countless other serial-killer dramas on TV was its unique chronology, spanning a timeline from the early nineties to the present, and its stunningly cinematic look. The next eight weeks saw fans obsess over clues and develop insane theories, including weird fiction, mysticism and occult symbols. Yet “Form and Void,” the season’s finale, revealed that the murder mystery conceit was just a vehicle to explore the transformations of Cohle and Hart as characters over 17 years.

The series’ greatest strength is the riveting performances by the two leads. McConaughey brought his signature Southern drawl to the nihilistic Cohle, in what will surely be remembered as a career-best performance. Cohle’s rambling philosophical monologues were on full display in the finale, with McConaughey clearly vying for an Emmy. Harrelson was equally compelling as the frustrated, womanizing Hart. And, ultimately, what elevated this crime drama to prestige television was the fantastic chemistry between the leads, partners who quite obviously despised each other. Watching the two banter was one of the great joys of watching “True Detective” each week. However, the hyper-focus on this pair resulted in the show’s complete lack of interest in any other characters. In particular, the talents of the fantastic Michelle Monaghan were wasted in an underdeveloped role as Hart’s wife.

In the first half of the season, “True Detective” positioned the two as anti-heroes, suggesting the possibility that the heroes are just as evil as the villains. This theme reached a climax in the stunning “The Secret Fact of All Life,” the show’s fifth episode and one of the year’s best hours of television. The episode cleverly juxtaposed the misleading stories Cohle and Hart told with the actual truth. It also hinted at the possibility that Cohle was somehow involved in the serial-killer conspiracy, using the investigation to cover up his own involvement. The show seemed to be deconstructing its constructions of masculinity, revealing the destructive forces of authority and misogyny on both Cohle and Hart.

All eight episodes were written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto, and the finale exposed the flaws of a series driven by the unrestricted vision an auteur. Unlike most shows that feature collaborative writers’ rooms, Pizzolatto was given complete creative freedom by HBO, and the writing was inconsistent as a result. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Pizzolatto expressed his disdain for shocking twists. “I just thought that such a revelation would be terrible, obvious writing … Nothing is so ruinous as a forced ‘twist,’ I think,” Pizzolatto told BuzzFeed.

Yet the finale was completely devoid of any surprises or insight into the mysterious cult responsible for the murders. The nuanced portrayals of Cohle and Hart were abandoned for a rather traditional redemption. Although the pair discover the killer, the creepy Errol Childress, in a thrilling action sequence — the episode’s highlight — it proved largely anticlimactic. Their victory and eventual reconciliation felt largely unearned. The supernatural elements and religious iconography proved to be purely aesthetic, rather than symbolic clues into deeper meaning.

Cohle’s final words are telling: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light is winning.” In its final hour, “True Detective” ignored its intricacies in lieu of a relatively happy ending. For a series that delved into gray areas, its dissent into simple contrast was disappointing.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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