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Monday, March 10, 2014

True Detective Season 1 Review: No Mask? No Mask!

When a show comes down the pike staring the kind of actors that TD had, it's easy to let expectations get the better of you. I can't say I was staring down the clock, shaking in anticipation, waiting for it to premiere. But come on, Woody Harrelson and Mathew Mcconaughey as antagonistic homicide partners? There was no way in hell I wasn't going to watch it all, whether I liked it or not. And I can safely say after the first hour I was definitely staring down the clock, shaking in anticipation, waiting for the next chapter of True Detective.

This was the best police procedural I've seen in a decade, maybe ever. Not just for what it did; reversing the buddy cop dynamic, heavily referencing 19th century horror stories, and having one of the all time greatest extended shots put to screen. But I'm more impressed about what TD didn't do. The central killer isn't some insidious mastermind toying with Rust and Marty, there is no humongous plot twist that changes everything you thought was true about the case, and everything you really need to know is laid out after three episodes. It was a "by the numbers" murder mystery. Which isn't to say it wasn't interesting, or even worse, predictable. But after years and years of the diminishing returns of genre reinventions, it was simply refreshing not to be f&*ked with. Artistically speaking.

"Oh, sorta like Blair Witch?" No. THIS IS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT, BETTER, THING ...EMILY.

I've always felt that there's nothing wrong with being formulaic, only that mediocre talent is more drawn to it. True Detective was formulaic as hell, so why is every TV critic going nuts over it? Because it's formula done so well, it feels original. It revels in archetypes instead of stock characters, freewheeling metaphysical monologues instead of gruff musings of what kind of hero the city needs, and lets the bitter reality of actual murder case conviction rates sink in. I'd love to expand on "real" convictions but I've already said way too much.

But really; the reason you're going to watch TD, and the reason it's going to hold up years from now, is because of Woody and Mathew. They're at the best I've ever seen them (and I saw The Dallas Buyers Club). They don't reinvent the noir detective wheel, but their combined screen presence and the staggering number of different ways they can make their faces look haggard is nothing less than hypnotizing. I'd always wondered if the best and brightest of film actors could hold up on a television series. Would it break ground in terms of excellence? Or would you just be sick to death of them? In TD's case, it's the latter. The both of them ran a marathon and finished first. I can't imagine myself saying the same of Nicholas Cage.

 Venturing outside the two of them, the record's a bit spottier. Michelle Monaghan is great in the role of a cop wife (see again, my thoughts on the noir wheel) but that doesn't mean she fits on the show. It's set in Louisiana and most of the actors try to have an accent. Rust is supposed to be from Texas/Alaska, so Mathew gets a pass on his drawl, but Monaghan can't crack it. It's not as if there aren't people in rural LS. without an accent, but it feels like scenes with her take place in a different show entirely. A damn good show, to be fair. The way she facially hides her smoldering anger away form her children is award worthy. But in terms of the mood and flow of the investigation half, Marty's home life just doesn't gel.

"What? Like none of your little friend's dads don't stagger around their houses with neat whiskey."
And in case you're wondering if the show passes the Bechdel test... no. Not even close. The women in TD (aside from the Q&A sit downs) can be filed neatly into virgin and whore categories. That isn't to say the show doesn't have some pretty thought provoking points to make about the virgin-whore dichotomy. But they're more of a self aware lampshade instead of a serious attempt at some kind of critique.

That aside, something that really stuck with me, and will probably stick with the next season (which will reboot like American Horror Story) is that the show's reality is a "flat circle." That time will repeat itself again and again. This isn't Rust being a loopy dorm room philosopher... well it isn't just that. It's the mantra for the show itself. That the killer's victims will be victims again, and that Rust will metaphorically chase after him and stop him only after it's to late. Again.

You know who has the time and money for a CGI owl almost no one will ever notice? I'll give you a hint, it's not TV...
The show revels in the nihilism that police can only stop murderers but not murder. That after all the pain and suffering that came from "Carcosa," simply solving the case and throwing the perp behind bars doesn't really change anything.

The reason this show is destined for greatness instead of another "life sucks and then you die" noir mystery, is that it tries so hard to find the meaning of life past all the violence and horror. Finding the "stars against the night" to borrow an image from the finale. That fact I took all this soapbox prattling at at face value is the best evidence I can provide of True Detective's conviction and competence. You will buy into this world, and even if some bits and pieces feel contrived at times, you will at least acknowledge what everyone else sees in it.

And you will burn to know who the Yellow King is just as badly. I promise you.

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