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by Alison Willmore
February 10, 2014 5:41 PM
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'True Detective' is the Most Cinematic Show on Television -- But Is It Anything More Than That?

'True Detective' HBO

The article below contains spoilers for the current season of "True Detective" through the February 9th, 2014 episode "Who Goes There." 

"True Detective" ended its fourth episode last night with a crazily involved six-minute single shot that followed Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle, a cop undercover as a criminal pretending to be a cop, through an attempt to raid a stash house in some low-slung projects. The camera followed Cohle and a group of bikers, including their leader, Ginger, as they broke into the house with a hostage and attempted to make off with what was inside. It was Ginger's idea, so it wasn't much of one, but Cohle was strong-armed into coming along in order to get info on the gang's meth cook, Reggie Ledoux, his and Hart's primary murder suspect.

In one long, impeccably choreographed take, we tracked Cohle as, gun in hand, he cleared the house and tucked a kid safely into a bathroom, as people gathered outside, as the hold-up went wrong and a guy got shot, as Cohle grabbed Ginger and dragged him by gunpoint through a neighboring house and into a fistfight. We panned up to see helicopters overhead as the pair scurried past laundry and evaded gangsters and cops, struggling over a fence to where Cohle's partner Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) was meeting them in his car.

It was one hell of a technical achievement, series director Cary Joji Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre," "Jane Eyre") getting his show-off moment with the help of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and attempting to out-Cuarón Alfonso Cuarón in the process. Beyond the virtuosity involved in getting the shot, the unblinking nature of the sequence gave it a sense of coked-out urgency as Cohle, so far off the reservation in an operation happening without the approval of the force, not to mention drunk and high, tried hopelessly to minimize the amount of damage done while not getting caught in the process.

There's no doubting "True Detective" is cinematic in a way that television just isn't, something that's been evident even before the dazzling finale of "Who Goes There." Fukunaga, who's directed all eight episodes of the season just as writer Nic Pizzolatto wrote all of them, has brought a moody, hallucinogenic beauty to the series, particularly the wide shots of the Louisiana flood plains, the dead malls and processing plants, a flock of birds swirling up through the sky to form what's almost a sigil -- if they're actually there and not the product of leftover drugs in Cohle's system. The series is a triumph of style, in this last episode as well of the ones previous, with Cohle and Hart wandering respectively through nightmarish parties at a warehouse and a biker outpost.

What I've yet to feel is that much to it beyond that. We're now halfway through the story, and it has yet to cohere as something other than a beautifully made and impressively acted typical cop tale with more than the usual sense of self-importance. Which is plenty -- to watch the series is to feel the barriers between film and television fade away, as it's every bit as visually luscious and consistent as something you'd find on the big screen, with two very able movie stars as its leads.

But the narrative being trudged through remains leaden, and Cohle and Hart tend to feel like a collection of notes rather than people, despite the eerily hollow turn by McConaughey. The detective work in the series feels like work, in stark contrast to the apocalyptic look it can have -- talking through cases, talking to witness and suspects and driving, driving, driving. My favorite line from "Who Goes There" was Cohle muttering to himself "They really should have a better system for this" as he sampled and then stole cocaine from evidence -- an actual flicker of humor from a figure who, at least in the past, tends to be anything but funny.

Hart's a hypocrite who doesn't take responsibility for his own actions and Cohle's a nihilist who's shell-shocked from years pretending to be a bad guy, but rather than allow these things to just come through in their behavior they emerge because the pair tell us and each other in a way that wouldn't be given the same tolerance in the sort of mid-level movie "True Detective" would be the equivalent to. Cohle's monologues are like an in-show Cliff's Notes to the theme to which it aspires. "The world needs bad men, we keep the other bad men from the door," he murmured at the end of the third episode, "The Locked Room."

The most interesting aspect of the plot isn't, at the moment, the mystery and how it was or wasn't solved but understanding how the Cohle and Hart of 1995 became the Cohle and Hart of 2012, as they ramble and sometimes lie their way through the case for the benefit of the cops looking back into it. It's interesting that in a medium so heralded for allowing the writer to come into the forefront, it's the writing that remains the weakest aspect of "True Detective." Though that's also a sign of how far television has come -- that visuals and performances can carry a drama so far.


  • READER 1 | March 28, 2014 2:44 PMReply

    Allison, I agree with you 100%. It's a fun show, but it's all operatics, great acting, and flashy cinematography with little substance. The only people who think a show like this is truly deep and well-written (as opposed to merely pulpy and entertaining) are people who don't read. And the angry reactions show that you've hit a nerve.

  • JLeone | February 11, 2014 5:04 PMReply

    Alison's tweet yesterday: "Oh, I'd never look at comments for a piece like this. It's like disliking a superhero movie."

    First of all: Bullshit. You don't write a contrarian piece like this without hoping for some kind of reaction.

    Second of all, nice work insulting IndieWire's readership.

  • Michael | February 11, 2014 2:47 PMReply

    Certainly, "True Detective" is much more than "cinematic." This column misses the mark of healthy crisicism. First, Ms. Willimore's use of the word - cinematic - is not particularly clear or helpful. Does she mean that the images presented are slick and exciting but empty and devoid of meaning? She confuses this point when she appears to argue the opposite: she complains that the characters explain themselves too much instead of showing us their inner characters. I think it can be argued that the characters regularly demonstrate behaviors that indicate their inner nature, and that the dense, existenitalist dialogue reinforces the unpleasant and difficult themes the show tackles. "Den of Geek" has a nice column on the most recent episode. And oh man, that opening song over the credits - how great is that?!

  • Jon | February 11, 2014 2:27 PMReply

    The onesie was amazing. Totally justified in creating the tension and urgency of the scene. I don't think it's ever been done as well or justified as much.

    The writing is also way cool. Mostly in the very insightful revealing complex concise dialogue. "I like mowing my lawn."

  • chris | February 11, 2014 11:59 AMReply

    Long shots w/o cuts are great, but not a barometer of "cinematicness". The language of cinema is about cuts, about compositions, about cutaways and reaction shots.... the assemblage of various images to evoke and tell a story. The occasional epic tracking shot is thrilling, but it's more of an interlude, a temporary flair, a flash of style. Not the same as "cinematic".

  • Hal | February 11, 2014 11:22 AMReply

    Most cinematic show? Not at all! That title goes without a doubt to House of Cards! They even won the Emmy for that. True detective is a mediocre show. A wannabe.

  • Hey | February 11, 2014 11:49 AM

    How is it possible for you to comment if you're blind and deaf, f@g0t.

  • benxpete | February 11, 2014 10:49 AMReply

    This is a fine example of why I rarely come to this site these days. "The writing isn't that good" is the most overused phrase by the most under qualified people.

  • mushysoap | February 11, 2014 11:52 AM

    Absolutely. There are few examples to back up his "argument", and coming at the end of a sloppily-written whinge, is a great example of not casting stones. Because this writer is a hypocrite of the first order. What exactly does he feel we should we be watching instead, to improve ourselves or benefit from whatever he construes to be Truly Good Writing - How I Met Your Mother?

  • WOW | February 11, 2014 8:18 AMReply

    This review feels like a collection of notes; poorly thought out and misconstrued.

  • caleb | February 11, 2014 5:56 AMReply

    i'm interested to hear what allison thinks of 'gravity,' considering this exact argument can be applied to that film - except on a much more extreme level. the technical achievements in 'gravity' are perhaps the best ever, but the writing and in particular the acting (something 'true detective' does not struggle with) are severely lacking.
    she is correct that when analyzing all the different parts of a tv series, the writing is the weakest element of 'true detective.' but we are splitting hairs, because when all these different elements are operating at such a high level, is it hardly worth noting that the writing is only a half-step behind.

  • Are you kidding? | February 11, 2014 4:14 AMReply

    Is this article for real? Indiewire, take this down. Now. True Detective will be remembered a hundred years from now.

  • Some Vague Idea | February 11, 2014 2:35 AMReply

    That shot was an impressive technical achievement but it really wasn't in keeping with the visual style of the rest of the show. And it pales in comparison to something like Se7en's foot chase in John Doe's apartment building. Which was also less gimmicky. In some ways, I feel True Detective's shot style was there to cover how extraneous the entire sequence felt. Every piece of important mystery info is given in the jail sequence at the beginning of episode. Just giant exposition dump of three men in a room. (The detectives and the show ignore the obviously important devil cult info.) no more info is revealed or detected. The rest of the show is just set up for showing off their last shoot out style. Which would have been twice as harrowing and more organic in the biker bar.

  • Nik Grape | February 10, 2014 11:11 PMReply

    "The most interesting aspect of the plot isn't, at the moment, the mystery and how it was or wasn't solved but understanding how the Cohle and Hart of 1995 became the Cohle and Hart of 2012, as they ramble and sometimes lie their way through the case for the benefit of the cops looking back into it."

    You write that like it's a bad thing but that's actually the point of the show, I think. The show is more about the characters of Cohle and Hart than the case of 1995, and the real mystery isn't a whodunnit but what exactly happened to these two guys.

    I think if you give the show another watch or two, from the beginning, you might wanna eat some words you've written here.

  • rocolo14 | February 10, 2014 11:01 PMReply

    It´s good to know that I´m not the only one who thinks this.

  • Take A Breath | February 10, 2014 10:08 PMReply

    Alison, Sometimes, good writing is in the unspoken dialogue. Set-ups, background, descriptors are all part of the craft. Unfortunately, they are often done a disservice by poor directing, performance or photography. I happen to feel this show is among the best ever presented to TV. We should be grateful, in the age of reality, twenty-something, 'vote-em off the island' dreck we must consume to try and satisfy our viewing needs. This show demonstrates what is possible when all the elements are 'firing on all eight'. It is smart, beautifully shot, artfully acted and handily directed. I do, however, appreciate your generous
    review of the photography! As a twenty six year veteran of film and television, I have worked on my share of 'soul sucking' shite that was hard enough to work on, let alone watch on my personal time. It is nice to see that someone, somewhere is still spending good money on content for adults. Perhaps the only fatal flaw of this show is the downtime between episodes, where I crave the next installment to satisfy my hunger to be entertained. I can't wait to binge watch this stuff on Netflix, if it ever comes available! I hope the query of your title has been answered?

  • Savannah | February 10, 2014 10:03 PMReply This is one of the best-written shows on TV. Incredible acting and cinematography, too, and really well-directed action sequences. The author has clearly watched too many episodes of Modern Family to be able to spot good writing.

  • Adam | February 10, 2014 9:49 PMReply

    It's amazing how one site can post an article about whether or not it's okay for a critic to review a film having walked out halfway through, before then posting about how True Detective shatters the boundaries between Film and TV while criticizing the fact that halfway through, they're not sure about the quality of the storytelling.

  • - | February 10, 2014 8:38 PMReply

    Yeah, no. The show's pretty easily the best on TV right now, and this was (bar Ozymandias) the best episode of TV I've seen since Mad Men's 5th season.

  • try harder | February 10, 2014 8:19 PMReply

    Well, nothing to see here. Just a dumb c//t pretending to know how to write a review.

  • Sally | February 10, 2014 8:12 PMReply

    True Detective is the best show on television, by far. The performances are spectacular and the intrigue lies in the shadows of the complex action. Allison, you are just not that deep. Grow up.

  • Kevin | February 10, 2014 8:10 PMReply

    I agree completely with Alison. It's not a bad show by any stretch. It's impressive all around. I understand the hype. I agree with it on a lot of fronts. It's worth watching, but the writing is pretty week. With the number of murder mystery/ crime shows on TV, this really is doing nothing different or interesting story wise. Great actors and great direction is what make this show stand out. The story is merely serviceable at best.

  • David | February 11, 2014 8:56 AM

    "...but the writing is pretty we(a)k." The writing is incredible. Some of the best writing I seen on TV ever. Really complicated story-lines between two different time periods as well. I'm at a loss with this comment. So far out of what is reality with the genius of this show, with it's writing, acting, and cinematography. If the writing wasn't good, the show wouldn't be good...period.

  • sam | February 10, 2014 10:27 PM

    nice try alison

  • 4F | February 10, 2014 7:40 PMReply

    *cringe* I thought this kind of clickbait was beneath Indiewire.

  • Kyle | February 10, 2014 7:36 PMReply

    I disagree...I am a producer and I believe this material to be the best on TV and also HBO holds nothing back. Look at there record. My three favorite shows on TV are Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, and Game of Thrones. The writing is amazing, dark, and yet sensual. This show soars and hopefully will continue to soar. Thank god HBO is allowing good stories like these to be told. Keep bridging out HBO you have a near perfect track record!!!

  • Compelled to Respond | February 10, 2014 7:07 PMReply

    Alison, while I appreciate your attempt at Armond White-like contrarianism, your point is misguided and easily invalidated. Everything you posit that makes the writing weak is in fact quite the opposite. Despite two recognizable movie stars as the leads, they are fully formed complex and troubled characters, aided by some of the best writing on tv today, their performances notwithstanding. But for everyone's sake, let's just hope we're being trolled. You got us IndieWire!

  • E | February 10, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    This series is completely thrilling and intoxicating throughout and the writing is superb.
    Probably superior to any other television police procedural aside from episodes of the wire.
    Not the most thought out article.

  • matt | February 10, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    the only shite writing is this article. Great show, amazing (Australian DOP) cinematography, insanly good acting....give up now and go write for GQ.

  • are you high? | February 10, 2014 6:42 PMReply

    You are off your rocker Allison. Plain and Simple. Can't believe I read this drivel of an article. If Indiewire were smart they'd take it down before more people read it.

  • Johnny | February 10, 2014 6:22 PMReply

    Wow what a retarded writer. I've been a regular visitor of indiewire for years and have come across some articles that I disagree with but not to one of this degree. Who hired this writer? You cant hire a blind and deaf person to write reviews for a TV show. The writing is probably one of the best things about the show. The mystery, although a backdrop to the characters, is still FAR more interesting and intriguing that most shit out there. Please write a follow-up apology to this piece of shit article, better yet stop watching this show all together. Go do reviews on those Amazon pilots that are "LOL SO FUN AND QUIRKY xDDD!!1". Leave the good shows to intelligent people. I know that I may come across as a angry teenager, but people might actually read this article thinking it has some potency becauses its associated with indiewire. Quit your job before you get fired.

  • CESmith | February 10, 2014 6:07 PMReply

    100% completely DISAGREE. If you think the writing is the weakest part of the show, you are 100% completely missing the point.