To live and die in Louisiana—looks pretty nasty, to be honest. The world of HBO's True Detective is rainy and gray. It's 1995, and the fields are empty, save for the ones hiding corpses. In this particular lonesome plot of land two detectives meet to inspect the curiously prepared body of a murdered woman. Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) is the Louisiana native, the regular type cop with a wife and two kids, just as likely to tell you a funny story about sex as he is to crack a case. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), on the other hand, he's the weird one, the quiet one. He's from someplace else, and though he's now working in Louisiana, his mind has an entirely different zip code. (Maybe not one on this planet?) He's got strange, distressing ideas about how the universe operates, and will share them if you press him. But you probably won't like what he has to say.
These two reluctant partners have to figure out who's behind this grisly murder before it happens again. And given the pageantry of the presentation—the corpse is found bound, drawn upon, and crowned with some animal matter—this bad, bad person is likely to do just that.
For eight-episodes of a stand alone season, True Detective will track the case in 1995, when it first began, and in 2012, when it was reopened. The narrative movies backward and forward through time, as Hart and Cohle in separate interviews recount the details. Who's telling the truth? It's up to the audience to play, well, you know.
HBO provided us with the first three episodes of the series. (The first episode premieres this Sunday at 9 p.m.) Complex deputy editor Justin Monroe, senior staff writer Matt Barone, editorial assistant Angel Diaz, and associate editor Ross Scarano sat around a dwindling campfire on a stormy night to discuss those episodes.
Justin: So Ross, explain why you dislike True Detective and are totally wrong.
Ross: Cool. Unfortunately, Slant Magazine beat me to this yesterday, but, to me, True Detective is Prisoners: The TV Series. Looks great, performances are great. But it's a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Justin: Ouch. I totally disagree.
Ross: The almost laughable dialogue about the darkness of the world—I have, in fact, laughed aloud during a number of Matthew McConaughey's monologues and the driving-around-and-smoking scenes with Woody Harrelson.
Matt: Interesting, because I didn't find anything about it laughable.
Ross: Of course! It's not supposed to be laughable. It's VERY SERIOUS. You can tell because of all the SERIOUS men talking about SERIOUS and DARK themes. Which makes me laugh. Stuff about "the meat thresher of life"—it's grade-Z Cormac McCarthy.
Angel: I didn't see Prisoners, but I'm sure Matthew McConaughey is going to win some awards. He sucked me in during the first five minutes. Plus I'm a big Woody Harrelson fan. They play off each other well. And I think the series is supposed to be dark, though. Reminds me of Seven.
Justin: I enjoyed the heavy, creepy dialogue. I can see how it's laughable to you, but it's laughable in so much as everything Cormac McCarthy writes is laughable because it's all $10-dollar words that very few human beings would ever utter. So you take it how you want it: Get put off by it or embrace it as the character.
Ross: Maybe it's the difference between reading something and watching/hearing a human being say it. As far as the dialogue goes.
Justin: It's cliché, of course, but I'm loving how flawed and/or fucked up both the detectives are. McConaughey's depressive weight that he carries over the loss of his character's daughter and subsequent downward spiral and self-realization works very well for me, as does Harrelson's guilt and total denial of what a shitty husband and father he is.
Ross: McCarthy's non-dialogue is just as baroque and ridiculous as his dialogue. It creates a total experience. I think I would like True Detective more, or find it more successful, if the other content of the show was as crazy as the dialogue sounds to me. If it had more in common with, say, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant remake (also set in Louisiana). There are shades of that (McConaughey's character experiences hallucinations), but it's not enough. Yet. Maybe that will change.
Justin: Are you finding the same in dialogue from other characters or just McConaughey?
Ross: I suppose it's just McConaughey, as it feels like he has far and away the most dialogue here. And the other characters are often reacting to his verbiage.
Matt: It feels like a show is building towards something—slowly, yes, and maybe too slowly—and it feels wrong to me to say that signifies nothing based on three episodes. It signifies a lot so far and is laying the groundwork for the kind of story I tend to enjoy. I'm invested in the idea of "What's up with this weirdly philosophical and antisocial, and maybe even creepy, guy, Rust Cohle? Why is he like that?"
I also think Woody Harrelson is playing his character, who, yes, is a familiar one (he cheats on his wife, is detached from his family), very well, with just the right amount of delicateness to where I don't think he's an asshole.
Angel: I also like how Harrelson's character has the utmost respect for McConaughey's character. He knows he's fucked up in the head, but recognizes his brilliance as a detective.
Ross: I don't want to dwell on the dialogue like that's the only thing I'm bumping up against. A bunch of this feels rote to me. We've seen this before. The conversation Harrelson's character has with his father-in-law is just like the conversation between Tommy Lee Jones' character and the retired cop in No Country for Old Men, right down to details about how kids these days are dressing (painted faces, etc). The conversation between Harrelson's character and his wife feels ripped from a certain interaction in Heat between Pacino's character and his trouble wife ("Oh, you want me to tell you about how bad my job is? [Insert story about junkie and his baby here.]"). The only stuff that feels legitimately fresh are: 1) The presence of this anti-Christian crime unit that's pressuring Cohle and Hart to abandon the case to them; 2) the hallucinations; and 3) the way the narrative unfolds, with the two timelines. Granted, those three things are interesting. It just hasn't been enough for me. I'm slogging through this like Louisiana swamp.
Angel: I get where you're coming from, Ross. These HBO series are like that sometimes, though. I feel like the show is going to get better and better as it unfolds because of those three things. And hopefully they'll introduce some more fresh things for us to chew up.
Matt: See, those are both movies I love, and with McConaughey and Harrelson in top form here, I'm willing to excuse the familiarity and enjoy how the show, so far, is handling common tropes and characters with a distinctly dark and hypnotic energy. It's not like any other show on TV; it feels like what The Killing could have, and should have, been. That mood isn't working for you, which is fine. It's so one-note, and aggressively so, that this show is going to live or die by that mood. I'm loving it so far, but I've always tended to be someone who often appreciates movies and TV more for how its presented (visuals, mood, sound design, etc.) than how original it is narratively. Perhaps that's why I'm such a big horror movie lover. There's a genre that rehashes the same five or six story templates, but the best ones distinguish themselves in how they're directed, acted, staged. That may also be why I like Prisoners a lot more than you do.
Justin: Rusty is a weird alien to the rest of the cast, and so more worthy of doubt and distrust. On some level, they could understand him if he were just a distraught cop who channels his despair into Christianity or alcoholism, drug addiction, sex with hookers, and abuse of suspects, but he is such a heady, philosophical, and scientific guy that he's like nothing they've ever seen. They have to respect his investigative mind but he's a stranger among them. His partner goes to the bar and jokes over beers about the time he got a surprise finger up the butt while he was nailing a college chick, and that's so far from Rusty. I STRONGLY enjoy the juxtaposition of him as a godless man amongst all these people who are Christian either by actual faith or default. His loathing for the tent revivalists is wonderful.
Ross: I understand your remark about form over content, Matt. I tend to approach art that way, too. But I'm suffering under how punishing this one note is, like a kid thunking away at the low-end of a piano for an hour straight. DUM. DUM. DUM. DUM. And then you pull the kid away from the piano and he starts cutting out paper dolls and talking about how insignificant a presence in the universe we humans are. It feels reductive. There's either "dumb" religion or scary (but unquestionably "smart") bleakness and despair.
Angel: I love how Rust challenges the establishment. From when he lit up the cig in the interrogation room to when he slapped his colleague, or when he laughed at the anti-Christian crime unit. His critical and dark personality makes him the perfect detective. And his note-taking is brilliant. He's like a mad genius and their simple minds can't handle it.
Ross: I don't know. It's all really well made. I fucking love a lot of the shots. There was a shot of McConaughey's face in the third episode that I wanted to screengrab.
Matt: It's worth noting that, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, the show's creator/writer, Nic Pizzolatto, said that the season takes on a somewhat different feel after the third episode. No clue what that means yet, but I'm curious to see.
Angel: Can we talk about how Woody went straight for the bootyhole when he saw his mistress? Anybody else caught that?
Ross: On a totally unrelated note, I think it's interesting how this show could signal some kind of move away from episodic TV. Like, the first episode felt like the first hour in a very long movie. The only sense of structure, in an episodic sense, I got was at the very end, when I could tell "Oh, this is the end." Are we reaching the point where TV shows are abandoning the episode structure and becoming like Béla Tarr movies? Eight hours long?
Matt: Yeah, and that's another thing I'm enjoying. It feels like no other TV show I can think of. I'm all for experimentation of this kind. Ultimately, will it work over the whole eight-episode run? We don't know yet, but I'm excited to see how it unfolds.
Ross: Yeah, I'm interested in that, too. I just wish it were happening with a different show.
Justin: I'm not sure it signals the change in anything, Ross. It's the structure of this one TV show. They have the past and present interwoven. I don't need any more episodic structure, personally. I'm enjoying the story and it punctuates just enough at moments to end episodes.
Ross: I mentioned that because I saw some remark from Jenji Kohan talking about how while writing for Orange Is the New Black she had the revelation that, because it will be made available all at once, she doesn't need to write each episode like an episode, with this short-story arc, a particular climax, etc. It's something she said she's thinking hard about going into the second season. I'm interested in how these changes in thinking might change the medium.
Justin: But that's a wholly different concept.
Ross: I don't think they're entirely unrelated.
Justin: HBO is making you wait a week, and I still think the show leaves you at moments that make you sit and think for a week.
Ross: No question. I just mean that this feels like it was written in a way that was less interested in writing a piece of television that would feel like an episode.
Justin: It is different, writing for an all-at-once Netflix drop. It needn't be, but it can be.
Ross: I don't think that's good or bad. Just interesting. Something I'm noticing.
Justin: I did notice that I couldn't tell where I was in an episode, and I like that. Watching something like Sons of Anarchy, you can practically count the beats (although you need to take into account that Kurt Sutter seems to get no less than 90 minutes per episode lately....). And even between episodes I wasn't sure where I saw what. (I did fall asleep twice while watching episode two because I was beat.) It works nicely both for narrative (the constant back and forth) and just because Rusty's head space is trippy despite his remarkable cogency.
Ross: Do you guys see the show as being more in Rusy's headspace than Hart's?
Justin: No, but they give you bits of both. And once you find yourself in Rusty's it doesn't rub off, for me at least. I'm thinking about what's going on in his mind even if I don't have visuals to display hallucinatory flashbacks.
Matt: I think the end-game will revolve more around Rust than Hart, yeah.
Justin: Thoughts on the cameos? I was enthralled by the prisoner they talk to about the dead hooker. Perhaps it's because Harrelson's accent doesn't strike me as Louisiana, but I'm pleased whenever I get natural sounding dialogue and a legit LA accent.
Ross: I liked the bedridden baseball player. That was weird. The way Harrelson's character talked to him with such admiration, just like Walter talking to the screenwriter in iron lung in The Big Lebowski.
Justin: The hooker's mom with her nails and denial that anything improper was going on when her trucker husband bathed her daughter....
Ross: That was such an uncomfortable aside. Jesus.
Justin: I appreciate some realism in prostitution, especially the kind that involves meth. That's not a career choice or life path for someone who hasn't experienced some awful trauma.
Ross: I didn't appreciate the think-piece-as-dialogue the show gave the woman who runs the bunny ranch they visit. It was like the show covering its ass for being a show that has little use for women beyond corpses or wives. It was paying lip service to so many substantial topics—prostitution, the patriarchy, men trying to control female sexuality, etc.—all these things that show hasn't been invested in, or demonstrated any interest in.
Justin: I appreciated that, but ultimately it's a show about the two guys, and in both that scene and the subsequent one with Hart's wife, it's really about what's going on in Hart's head, how he sees things one way despite reality and his own actions saying it's another way entirely. I was more taken by his wife's examination of him, though.
Matt: I like how there's this really bizarre murder case going on but the show is more interested in getting into these two guys' psyches. I'm fascinated by this murderer and the weird occult stuff he or she is leaving behind, but it's a testament to how much I'm digging the show as a whole that I'm not mad about being given little info on those specifics thus far.