True Detective: The Long Bright Dark

[Editor's note: The following piece on HBO's True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, was written by Fox the day after the pilot premiered. My apologies for the late delivery!   -Scout}

I once watched a TED Talk with JJ Abrams where he explained the importance of something called “The Mystery Box”. This concept stems from the idea that an audience is more prone to stick with a story if they know there’s something in it for them. He cites Star Wars, a sci fi mythology hybrid that really never presents a mystery. At least not a in the traditional sense. But Abrams goes on to explain that because we keep meeting new characters, going new places, and seeing new things without any of them being over explained to us from the get-go, we appreciate that there is a mystery to these people. Princess Leia’s recording in R2-D2’s memory bank alone pulls the story along and can’t help but pull the audience with it. True Detective begins it’s pilot with one hell of a mystery box. We’re immediately presented with two versions of both Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. I say versions because even though it’s immediately clear that the show is essentially a flashback told in the present by Harrelson & McConaughey, the real angle of the re-telling of their first case together is to set up just why these two men have changed so much both in appearance and more importantly temperament. Harrelson presents himself as a veteran cop with a closely shaved head of hair and a bit of a beer gut. McConaughey on the other hand looks like a maniac. He's being filmed in an interview room but he stares off into space and ignores the fact that he’s indoors as he attempts to light up a cigarette. With hiss wild head of hair and equally crazy moustache he looks not unlike Charlie Manson.  Within the first five minutes we’re presented with a hook. How on earth did these two men get from point A to point B in their careers and more importantly in their lives?

Rust Cohle (McConaughey) is described by Marty Hart (Harrelson) as insanely smart. This is another wonderful set up because even though it’s very clear that Cohle is heading down a road that will lead to the wild present tense version of himself, we’re able to see that here is a man who is really good at what he does. And it raises a question. Is he still good at what he does? Is his desert island appearance just a part of a larger whole that we don’t understand yet? Do you want to keep watching yet? I sure do. By the end of the episode we learn that the two are being interviewed because another murder has occurred in the present and it's nearly identical, to the detail, to a murder they at least thought they had solved over a decade prior. Now we’re talkin’.

And the mystery doesn’t always revolve around police work. We get an early glimpse into Cohle’s apartment; it's stocked with a mattress on the floor, some books on psychoanalysis and criminal minds and that’s about it. Hart looks around the empty apartment in mild awe that a man could live this way. His present self mentions that a middle-aged man without a family can be dangerous. He clearly doesn’t understand Cohle but wants to. And Cohle quickly makes it clear that he wants to learn about his new partner as well...in his own way. 

All of these pieces make for a great pilot. They allow for a logical progression of details being delivered to both the characters within the story and the audience without anything seeming out of place or odd that it hadn’t been revealed earlier. True Detective does manage to find good storytelling in clichés as well. Hart is a by the book detective who hunts for real evidence to make a case. Cohle on the other hand is far more cerebral, basically doing unauthorized undercover work to gather information about the people he’s suddenly surrounded by. He even garners the nickname “Taxman” because of the ledger he keeps with him at all times to keep track of all the wheels that are turning. We’ve seen this partnership before but it doesn’t feel stale here. Instead we sort of revel in watching these familiar roles being played by two of the finest actors working today. The series itself was ordered for an 8-episode season and every one of them is written & directed by the same two guys. This is insanely rare for both television, even HBO, but from what I’ve seen so far I’m happy to see what the duo can do.

The pilot’s paradoxical title actually does a lot to explain what we’re in for as an audience. Early on in the episode Cohle goes off on a bit of rant about how humanity doesn’t make sense as a species. He surmises that we sort of broke the rules by being here with everything we have. We’ve superseded any control and exist completely independent of nature itself. Hart calls bullshit on him but the idea gets planted in both his mind and the audience’s. If humanity has somehow broken the rules of nature then what we’ve done or what we do must be in some way, evil. Cohle’s ramblings also suggest that the natural world is a place of beauty even if it is uncompromising. It’s humanity that pushes wrongdoing and hurt into the world. So in being technologically advanced, civilized beings we can’t help but shed light on our own horrifying faults. The time that humanity has spent on this earth can only be seen as the planet’s darkest period. And it’s nobody’s fault but ours.

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