True Detective follows a pair of intelligent, disillusioned alcoholics as they wrestle with the ageless thinking man’s dilemma of futility. Detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are looking for answers, and the death of Dora Lange, a prostitute in Louisiana who was killed, bound, and left in a field with antlers affixed to her head, evolves into a pretense for the damaged men to symbolically search for proof of a governing intelligence. They’re looking for structure, proof that our actions amount to more than a spit in a cosmic bucket, and an intensely qualified optimistic ending more or less rewards this quest, as the detectives manage to uncover an organized cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles who’re shielded by government connections and thusly immune to justice. But, hey, at least they prove that this implicatively timeless evil is capable of being unearthed at all. The heroes aren’t able to bring every culpable person to justice (for one thing, the series is explicit in its assertion that we’re all culpable in perpetrating the great ongoing social atrocity known as “community”), but they manage to expand the boundaries of their lives, both physically and spiritually.
Boundary is the optimal word. Circles dominate True Detective, informing its redundant sonata of regret and boozy misery. There’s a telling moment when Cohle smashes a beer can flat into a circular shape and pontificates as to how our three-dimensional existence might look from a vantage point in which all past and present time is simultaneously visible, not in a forward-moving linear structure, but as a circular pattern. Characters from one of the show’s three timelines (1995, 2002, and 2012, respectively) will often reappear in another, in contexts that affirm how most people go about living the same metaphorical day over and over whether they enjoy it or not—a repetition born of human nature that leads to emotional paralysis and embitterment. A prosperous preacher in one time thread will turn out to be a drunk, penniless hypocrite in another, or a child whore will grow up to ironically reward a gesture of kindness with sex, in a transaction that faintly resembles the prostitution she escaped. Or Hart and his wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), will have the same bad cop-movie argument over and over again: He’s never home, he’s a womanizer, she doesn’t understand he needs to compress after work, and so forth.
This portent is often as silly as it sounds, though occasionally effective, and it’s refreshing to see detective fiction that allows us to revel in the process of actual detection. Quite a bit of the show’s running time is spent watching Hart and Cohle interview witnesses or parse through tax records. But the enervation and the redundancy grow exhausting: The Lange case may be purposefully convoluted and intentionally beside the larger existential point (as in most religions, the search for truth, after all, is more important than the truth itself), but that still means that we’re stuck with a plot, however fraught with belabored socio-philosophical subtext, that continually spins in, well, circles. And this thing is nothing but plot: There’s a fine line between a story that detonates the clichés of detective fiction (such as novelist Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy) and a serial that’s obviously filling time with talk of a Yellow King to keep people buzzing around water coolers the next day.
The structural fanciness might justify itself if we, like the detectives, were able to discern a higher ambition at work, but it’s hard to escape the suspicion that you’re watching just another cop show with all the usual hot air about padded bureaucracies and the last good iconoclasts and the evil men who must be stopped at all costs. There are no casual grace notes. Creator Nic Pizzolatto’s dialogue is relentlessly mytho-poetical and director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s imagery is expressive but over-determined in the tradition of every prestige cable show that now arrives seemingly prepackaged with its own accompanying think pieces. The celebrated six-minute tracking shot in the fourth episode, for instance, where Cohle barely escapes a stash house heist, is gripping, but you feel the actors hitting the chalk marks. The comparatively casual touches are better, such as the wide, wide master shots that affirm the detectives’ feelings of marginalization by their natural habitat, or the way the extras at a trailer-park whorehouse are blocked to resemble a witch’s coven. Or the stunning shot in an early episode in which the stained glass of a partially burned-away church is naturally juxtaposed against the countryside—a succinct and beautiful encapsulation of the past bleeding into the present.
But the plot and the formal machinery often obstruct the beauty, and Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have a particularly annoying habit of eliding scenes that threaten to disrupt their monotonous celebration of the crumminess of life. Pivotal transitional moments that promise to elaborate as to how Hart or Cohle have leapt to certain conclusions often occur off screen in a cheap ploy to engender audience doubt on their credibility. Character relationships are sketched in B-movie terms, though the filmmakers are too solemn and self-important to provide us B-movie pleasures (you’re pitifully grateful at one point for a Lucinda Williams song on the soundtrack, which breathes forth a gust of fresh human air). And for all the pronounced artiness, the glorification of male self-absorption that’s common of the obsessive cop story remains, especially in the typical shoot-first-ask-questions-never actions of the heroes and in Hart’s routine conquests of 10s half his age who bare their requisitely perfect breasts and butts on cue. True Detective is diverting, but it’s basically another prolonged feel-bad horror movie with delusions of grandeur.
Image clarity, unsurprisingly for a recent top-shelf HBO show, is pristine. Colors are robust and varied, most notably the deep earthy blacks, blues, and browns. And the various sound mixes honor the show’s rich symphonic, impressively balancing the subtle, shrewdly selected diegetic songs with T Bone Burnett’s boldly sensual, ominous score. Dialogue and incidental sound effects are also appropriately nuanced.
The various interview featurettes alternately reshuffle the usual promo material in which actors and filmmakers summarize the story for us in digestible little bullet chunks. The relaxed audio commentaries are the highlight of the package, as they occasionally afford Burnett the opportunity to discuss the specifics of a Bo Diddley song or the rationale behind the use of certain Cajun music, but they’re often marked by silence or by creator Nic Pizzolatto’s tendency to state the obvious. You hope for a more detailed Burnett feature, though "A Conversation with Nic Pizzolatto and T Bone Burnett," which is mostly marked by self-congratulation, isn’t it. Deleted scenes round out these skippable supplements.
HBO provides their newest catalogue staple a suitably gorgeous home-video presentation, though the format, which encourages binge viewing, could serve to accentuate the nagging hollowness of True Detective’s busy-body plotting.