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One of the benefits viewers (and critics) reap from continued and sustained excellence in the drama field is that writers and directors, perhaps feeling pressured to stand out even among the best, are experimenting more noticeably with tone, pace, structure and visual impact.
This experimentation was on display in some of 2013’s best dramas — like The Returned, Rectify, Broadchurch and others. There was something (sometimes a few things) distinct about these shows that made astute viewers keenly aware that originality was kicking at the corners of their television sets. And as 2014 get underway, we can add HBO’s magnificent and magnetic anthology series True Detective — which premieres Sunday, Jan. 12, at 9 p.m. — to that list.
In fact, even though the new year is just beginning, there’s a real certainty that True Detective will feature prominently in the year-end best-of lists we’ve all just set aside. Who will forget this out-of-the-box knockout in 11 months? Nobody paying attention, that’s for sure.
True Detective has three immediately impressive attributes. The acting — by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson — is off the charts. The writing, by series creator and novelist Nic Pizzolatto, undulates from effectively brash soliloquies to penetratingly nuanced moments carried by sparse prose. Lastly, director Cary Fukunaga has created a beautiful, sprawling sense of place (the series is shot and set in Louisiana). With Pizzolatto writing all eight episodes and Fukunaga directing all eight, there’s an overt sense of a shared vision (at least in the four episodes sent by HBO). Perhaps that’s why this series seems so immediately self-assured, as if it was already in its third season.
True Detective is about two disparate detectives — one an old-school investigator, the other a book-smart profiler — brought together on a murder investigation with occult overtones and a strong whiff of serial killer sophistication. It’s the kind of case Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division hasn’t seen before.
The series moves deftly between 1995, when detectives Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConaughey) start working the case, and 2012, when both men are being interviewed — separately — by two detectives working a new case that has strong similarities (elements unknown to the public, which would seem to rule out a copycat). Credit Pizzolatto with both an assured sense of craftsmanship in the structure and a novelist’s flourish in the telling of the story. More impressively, McConaughey and Harrelson look astonishingly different from 1995 to 2012. The physical transformations are incredible.
Flashing back and forth and revealing bits of the case and personal bits of both Hart and Cohle keeps viewers hooked on each track, while the technique also provides a glimpse at how their relationship changed all the people around them over time.
Is an occult/serial killer premise new? Is the concept of disparate partners chaffing against each other a fresh one? Of course not. And that’s why True Detective earns its praise — familiar storytelling conceits are enlivened by the stellar, riveting performances of McConaughey and Harrelson, the tone-shifting writing devices of Pizzolatto, and Fukunaga’s ability to nail an establishing shot of Louisiana’s vast, contrasting features while also experimenting with fugue states and off-kilter framing. Put them together and you’ve got a series that sneaks up on you because it seems both familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously.
There’s a lot of other fine work being done beyond the lead actors — including Michelle Monaghan as Maggie Hart and Kevin Dunn as Hart and Cohle’s boss. And the present-day interviews conducted by the new detectives — played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles — also hint at where True Detective might go in its next incarnation.
The plan is for these eight episodes to be contained, with a new story and new actors kicking in each season, though the storytelling structure will remain the same.
Would it be something truly special to see McConaughey and Harrelson return for another eight — or 16 episodes? Hell yes! It’s a tour-de-force by the duo. But there’s nothing wrong with keeping things fresh either — especially if Pizzolatto stays involved.
On top of all of this, by the way, T Bone Burnett supervises the music for True Detective, and the impact is visceral — moody when needed, full-blown songs complementing the action onscreen, and everything evocative and a contributing factor to the excellence.
True Detective, coming as it does after what was arguably the best year for dramas in at least five years (really saying something in our continued renaissance era), just puts an exclamation point on the topic of excessive quality. Who knew the bar would be set so high so early?
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