True Detective – Episode One: The Long Bright Dark

Detective Rust Cohle: I’m what’s called a pessimist. It means I’m bad at parties.
Detective Martin Hart: You aint great outside of parties either.

HBO unveiled its new Sunday night prime time series True Detective on Sunday night against the competition of The Golden Globe Awards. This is a cop show, or should I say detective procedural, set in Vermilion Parish (county) of Louisiana. This is not New York, not Chicago, and definitely not L.A. For the record, it is not even set in The Big Easy, New Orleans.

The people speak slowly, and the feel is definitely not urban. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McGonaughey star as Detective Martin Hart and Detective Rust Cohle. The case they catch, it is in 1995, is a murder with the appearances of being a psycho-sexual crime, with a patterned ritualistic design that also has a strong sense of religious fervor flavorings. Straightaway, McConaughey’s Cohle calls it the work of a serial killer.

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Since we regular folk have only the 1st episode to discuss (pro critics got the first 4 episodes) I should give a little background. When the police have a case with all signs pointing towards a serial killer, we usually expect someone that’s kind of creepy, or maybe I should amend that to fully creepy.

Well in True Detective, we get that immediately. Only it is one of the detectives – McConaughey’s Cohle. He’s got a lot of baggage that trails him, a busted marriage, a dead daughter, alcohol and tobacco problems, and he’s an insomniac – he claims he doesn’t sleep – rather, he dreams.

His partner, Detective Hart, outwardly looks the kind of detective you can root for. He is married, while Cohle was married. Hart has two daughters, Cohle’s daughter passed. Hart has the respect of his fellow detectives down at the CID. Cohle is laughed at behind his back, as well as in his face.

Hart is a god-fearing church goer, while Cohle practices only meditation. Hart’s home is fully furnished, while Cohle’s pad has a mattress on the floor and a crucifix on the wall. Actually you won’t find two more different guys.

But this crime, has impacted both of them. So after three months of working together in near silence, Hart begins to probe Cohle about what he thinks, and how he feels about – this and that. A big mistake because within minutes Hart has to respectfully ask Cohle to not talk. Because Cohle’s topics of conversation were too weird for Hart.

Yes, this is a different kind of story. This will be the one case we will see this season on this show, At least that is what we think as it begins with our two detectives rolling into the crime scene out by a field of sugar cane.

But, within minutes, we see that there’s much more to this than meets the eye. You see, the show opens with the previously described crime, in 1995, then jumps to 17 years later as we discover that both Hart and Cohle are being interviewed separately by a pair of other detectives.

Hart and Cohle solved their case, worked together for 7 years, and haven’t spoken in 10 years. Why are they being interviewed – because another killing has been discovered and apparently everything indicates that this new crime matches the one from 17 years ago.

The new detectives are probing into what went down 17 years ago = they’re asking about the old case, and the detectives personal lives back then. They say, we are trying to understand how you fellows process cases.

So right away we know – they may have convicted the wrong killer, or they have a copy-cat murderer. Or, one of them, Hart or Cohle may be the real killer, and we have no idea about what went wrong between them.

Very ambitious if you ask me. The trick will be to keep us involved, and to not waste our time with suspects who appear, look good for the crime, and then aren’t right for it.

I think we have no worries about Woody and Matthew. More of concern, which could be unfounded on my part , is how this show is made. Usually, for a weekly TV series, the writing is done by a staff, under the aegis of a show-runner. Week to week, the story, and the characters are tweaked. Not so in this show. The entire season has been written by one man – Nic Pizzalotto, a novelist and college professor from Southwest Louisiana. He did write two episodes of The Killing in 2011, but that’s it. There’s no staff, no team, and it’s all on Nic.

Here’s the trailer to give you a peak before we get too far into this:

The other major shift away from standard TV production methods concerns the direction of each episode. Usually, a series has multiple directors who work a week at a time, then some one else comes in for a week, and so forth. Here Cary Fukunaga is at the helm for all eight episodes.

Pizzalotta explains the singularity of the writing and direction by calling the series ‘an 8 hour movie‘. We’ll see how it works out. But even if it doesn’t thrill you each week, this is still a bold and innovative step towards revamping how TV shows are made.

A word of warning. This show, at least what we’ve seen so far, is mostly dialogue. That will change in future episodes, but it is what we have for now. We never saw the crime as it happened, and the amount of action was limited to a single slap at the CID HQ. Mostly, it is atmosphere and dialogue. I hesitate to call the dialogue a conversation, as it is soon quite apparent that Hart wishes he hadn’t gotten his partner to start talking. So yeah, it is slow, or possibly even boring. But when you see the scowls on Hart’s face, or the blank look of some one who is kind of lost – like Cohle, you may want to reconsider if that is what you were thinking. The reality is that you can’t really dismiss this kind of a scene so quickly. Pay attention to the details, and you will be rewarded.

In any event – The show has succeeded in bringing me back for the next episode. You can’t go wrong with McConaughey and Harrelson as both of them are on a hot streak. Other notable folks in the cast are Michael Harney who you will recognize from NYPD Blue (Det. Mike Roberts), Deadwood, Persons Unknown, Weeds, Vegas, and Orange is the New Black.

Michelle Monaghan appears in all 8 episodes as Hart’s wife. She will also appear in two other films to be released later this year. You may remember her as Kimberly Woods from the series Boston Public.

Also on board is Kevin Dunn who plays the Chief of Detectives at the CID, a Major Ken Quesado. He’s Hart and Cohle’s boss. Dunn appeared in the ill-fated, HBO horse racing series Luck. We will also see him in the Kevin Costner football film, Draft Day which opens on April 11th.

I’m looking forward to the next episode, and would like to hear what you think of this series.

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4 thoughts on “True Detective – Episode One: The Long Bright Dark

  1. Good review Mike. This actually holds a lot of promise as it doesn’t let us know exactly what happens at the end, but also gives us some hints and ideas as to what may, or may not happen. Also, it’s interesting to see the pairing of McConaughey and Harrelson in the roles that they are rolling with here.

    • Thank Dan –

      I think it is also interesting in how well McConaughey is doing since he left the world of rom-coms. Wondering if any one will remember that he did a film called The Wedding Planner back in 01 starring opposite J-Lo. On the other hand, Harrelson, so far in this one, is a bit reigned in. And that makes his work all the more impressive. He was also reigned in the McCain/Palin campaign film called Game Change. I like an actor who works against type so well.

  2. That’s interesting! I didn’t know that reviewers had the first 4 episodes, but I definitely got the feeling that they saw more than I must have. Not that I didn’t enjoy episode 1, but I was left feeling like it left off halfway through an episode.

    Great and thorough research. I wondered where I recognized Hart’s wife from!

  3. Just saw Episode 1 On Demand and I was very impressed. I like a lot of things about this show. Great acting. smart dialog. unreadable/unreliable informants, unappealing but realistic locals and locales, the way the story moves back and forth through time, and the original plot device in which we find ourselves watching an investigation of another investigation. Harrelson is not overplaying; he’s the solid family man we won’t suspect. McConaughey is simply terrific in this role made the same year he delivered his golden globe winning performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Michelle Monaghan does her usual blue collar magic. Just a super HBO premiere. Can this show avoid the type of sloppy trick ending that marred Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, and The Killing last year? Hope so.

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