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‘True Detective’ is the Most Cinematic Show on Television — But Is It Anything More Than That?

'True Detective' is the Most Cinematic Show on Television -- But Is It Anything More Than That?

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.

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