HBO's True Detective wrapped up its first season last Sunday and if you didn't see it you should make time to catch up, because it was one wild, crazy, and baffling ride through the bayous of Louisiana with two incredible lead performances that you don't want to miss.
Creator Nic Pizolatto wrote a complex mystery that sprung from the influences of the true crime and pulp fiction genres to weave a tangled, 17-year long web of murder, satanic sex cults, child sacrifices and government conspiracy that was almost impossible to figure out on first viewing. I haven't gone back to re-watch any of the eight episodes yet but I'm sure that if you want to you can piece together more of the clues that were laid out from the start (or maybe you can't, which might be the point all along). It was a complicated plot which may have fooled a lot of people into thinking that the mystery was a central part of the storytelling, in which case you were bound to be a little let down by the finale, which left a lot of unanswered questions, too many for all the details they had laid out, in my opinion. But the good thing is, the show was always just as much about the two lead characters, and in that area they did not disappoint.
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were pitch-perfect casting as Detectives Rustin Coale and Marty Hart, two guys with polar opposite views of the world forced to work together in solving the seemingly unsolveable. That's familiar territory (especially lately, there's an awful lot of shows populating the air right now about cops looking for a killer), but as always, the effect is driven by the chemistry and the individual characters themselves, and in this case both were spectacular. Matthew McConaughey has the much flashier role here, as he's the philosophical, world-weary, cynical and obsessive Rust, whose views of humanity are bleak and whose tendency to go off on literary, almost non-sensical tangents are sometimes amusing yet baffling at the same time. It takes some getting used to, as Rust's diatribes, even looking back on them, make very little sense, but McConaughey's total commitment to the crazy sells every word. He's guaranteed to win the Emmy for this later in the year. Harrelson has the more understated role, as the simpler man befuddled by the women in his life- his wife, his mistress, his daughters. He puts up with Rust but seems to hate him, and their love/hate relationship is fun to watch play out.
It's a two-man show, as Harrelson and McConaughey are really the only well-written characters in the series. Michelle Monaghan is Harrelson's wife Maggie, who has the third biggest part, but she really gets the shaft here, as her character is highly underwritten and undervalued, fulfilling the traditional role of the nagging wife on TV dramas about male antiheroes. But it really doesn't matter, because Rust and Marty are the show- everything comes back to them in the end, and the two actors are so good that they make up for any shortcomings in the writing for the other bit parts in the series. A bigger drawback is the writing for all the story threads left hanging; I realize this is primarily a show about atmosphere, as it's simply drenched in it, with the landscapes of Louisiana layed out in beautiful yet grotesque fashion- a glossy exterior where horrific secrets lay buried underneath- but there's a little too much focus on the plot to wrap up with an ending that's slightly anti-climactic (the confrontation of the killer in the finale reminded me way too much of Silence of the Lambs) and several plot points introduced that don't pay off.
It's interesting- this miniseries reminded me of another one called Top of the Lake, which is similar in its themes and mystical, universe-questioniong nature. You might even call that the feminist version of this kind of detective story (without the movie star headliners of course). Yet I'm more okay with the open endedness of that show, which never promised or pretended to get into the grizzly details of the murder mystery, setting up clues or leads that would seem to be leading to concrete answers.This one wanted to have it both ways at times, and yet there were fantastic moments in some episodes of this show that were unprecedented for television- like that 5-minute tracking shot at the end of the fourth episode- truly a cinematic move from director Cary Fukunaga that was pretty damn impressive. Pizolatto wants True Detective to be an anthology series, which means the next season would be a whole new cast in a new location, with a brand new mystery to unfold. I'm so there for the next installment- but how about some female detectives time around, huh?