True Detective

by Joe Hartlaub

If you love crime fiction you simply must start watching True Detective. The first season of the eight episode HBO series premiered last Sunday, January 12. I watched it this morning under less than ideal circumstances — sitting in my car during a snowstorm, waiting for my ungrateful and unappreciative daughter — using my Kindle Fire, and you could have set my hair on ablaze while I was watching and I wouldn’t have noticed.  It’s that good.

Fans of Breaking Bad who have been wondering what to do for an hour or so that did not involve a death grip on a book should fine True Detective to be just the ticket. The story is going to be completed in eight episodes — a totally new story, with new characters, commences next year — so you don’t have to worry about a cliffhanger ending that will keep you wondering over the summer about who did what and to who. Waiting week to week will be bad enough, yes indeed. The storyline, set against the pitch-perfect backdrop of Gulf Coast Louisiana alternates on different time tracks, ping-ponging back and forth between 1995 and the present. Such might be confusing in lesser hands but it works perfectly here, as we watch two mismatched Louisiana State Patrol homicide detectives named Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin “Rust” Cohle  (Matthew McConaughey) investigate the unsettling ritualized murder of a prostitute named Dora Kelly Lange in 1995, while they are separately interrogated about the case in the present. Primary attention is given to the 1995 timeline. Hart is the “normal” one in the team (though he’s not; not really) with an understatedly hot wife and a pair of too cute daughters; he is indigenous to the area and knows the lay of the cronyish land well enough to go along to get along.  Cohle, for his part, is effin’ weird. He is known as “Taxman” due to his penchant for carrying an oversized ledger around with him in order to take copious notes and make crime scene drawings. Cohle is smart, maybe brilliant — a fact recognized by Hart — but he is a fish out of water, a transplant from Texas whose occasional existential pronouncements tumble extemporaneously from his mouth with a rapidity that are unsettling to everyone around him in general and to Hart in particular. Cohle’s statements are so fraught with literary angst that it is impossible to watch the show without stopping the action in order to rewind certain scenes for the purpose of writing down the dialogue (I would imagine — hope — that someone will be compiling Cohle’s statements as the season proceeds and post them on a website). Such would not, however, make him a fixture at progressive cocktail parties. His appearance and demeanor are such as to be unsettling, more so when he is silent and affixes his thousand yard stare at someone, or something, or nothing at all.

The first episode sets up a bunch of dominoes, which include Cohle’s past (and present) problems with alcohol and the tragedies of his past; the seemingly neglected disappearance of a young girl from the same area years before Lange’s murder, and which may or may not be connected to the homicide; and the assurance, almost certainly incorrect, that Hart is the stable one on the team. Actually, by episode’s end the only assurances we have are that 1) Cohle is no longer a cop; 2) he and the deceptively laconic Hart have had a falling out in the interim between their investigating, and apparently solving, the case in the mid-1990s and the present; and 3) in spite of their having solved Lange’s homicide and apprehending her murderer, someone is again killing women in the same ritualized fashion.   

There is no sex in this first episode of True Detective, and only second or two of mild violence, but there are some intense scenes, nonetheless. I will mention but two. One is the discovery of Lange’s body, laid out in a manner both repulsive and uncomfortably erotic. No one wants to look, but the body is where the clues are. And if the poor detectives have to look, so do you, the viewer. The second is an excruciating scene involving dinner. Hart, in the midst of the 1995 investigation, invites Cohle over to his house to meet the wife and family. Believe me, it’s in doubt as to whether Cohle will pass the shrimp etouffee or filet the entire family as they eat. The only certainty is that Cohle will not be invited back. You, the viewer, however, will not be able to stay away.

I am not suggesting that you steal an hour from your reading time to watch True Detective. Merely add an additional ten minutes per night for six nights to make up for it. But watch True Detective. It will be the best police procedural you have ever been able to read without turning a page.  
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18 thoughts on “True Detective

  1. Joe,
    I also watched this (taped) last night but, as you say, the dialog is so delectable that I stopped at 9:30 because I was drifting into sleep (no reflection on the show; it was just near my bedtime!). I agree that it is good stuff..and nice to see Woody Harrelson NOT playing the weirdo for once. Haven’t been this hooked into a new cop show since “Luther.”

    • First off, thanks to 1) Jim Bell for seeing that this post was, uh, posted and 2) to Joe Moore for his suggestions on how to get back on track.

      Kris, I totally agree re: Woody Harrelson. I think he gives the performance of his career in this. I am hooked as well, just downloaded the theme music by the Handsome Family. Hope you enjoy.

  2. Hey, Joe! I can’t wait for this to come out on Netflix, as I don’t have HBO. Right now I am watching all the Sopranos episodes, three or four at a time. I’m still amazed.

    Handsome Family is pretty interesting. Listening to “Frogs” right now. Hmmmm.

    I still think that the Crime Story TV series was one of the best ever.

  3. Adam I am TOTALLY with you on Crime Story. I want to be Dennis Farina when I grow up.

    Too much Handsome Family will make you psychotic. I speak from experience, paid for with bitter coin.
    “Far From Any Road” is the theme to True Detective. Enjoy!

  4. I saw the preview for this and can’t wait to watch it on demand! I never saw the Crime Story TV series – obviously I missed out there!

    • Crime Story, Clare was Michael Mann’s follow-up to the wildly successful Miami Vice. It was a great show, but very different from Miami Vice set in the early 1960s, in Las Vegas, retro before retro was cool. I had some VHS tapes of it which are gone now. I keep hoping it will turn up on a cable network.

    • Crime Story is on Netflix DVD. So many actors appeared for the first time on that show. And the theme song was another big hit back in the day. The band that backed up Del Shannon used to play for our fraternity parties–Sigma Tau Gamma.

  5. Sounds like a great show. I also like the idea of a short story where the protagonist is so obsessed with a show that he watches it in a snowstorm in his car with his hair on fire!

  6. I watched it this morning. Definitely better than I expected. I think my favorite dialogue scene was the one in the car that starts out with WH asking/assuming MM if he’s a Christian man, and the can of worms that opens, and finishes with WH telling MM he isn’t as interested in casual conversation with him as he thought he would be.

    • That stuck in my mind, too, Catfriend, though the extended interrogation scenes, when MM was sending the cops out for beer, etc. are indelibly etched in my mind.

    • The concept of the 8-13 episode arc, Mike, has given scriptwriters (and everyone else involved in the process) a much bigger canvas to work with than film while freeing them from the concept of the traditional 22 episode television series. I love it.

  7. Having just finished Breaking Bad and Mob City and LOVING both of them, I waited on baited breath for True Detective to start. Sunday is the highlight of my week now. I only wish it were longer 🙁 Great recommendation, Joe!
    Victoria Allman
    Author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  8. Hi Victoria, Happy New Year! I don’t want to complicate your Sunday evening any further, so I won’t mention THE FOLLOWING or SHERLOCK!


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