Killer Show: 'True Detective' Rises Above Genre

The new HBO show stakes its claim for veracity and novelty, especially when compared to other TV detective series.

Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts

The way I was told the following story had to do with a man being asked a question about his wife. However, aware of the mores and manners of the world we’re living in, I prefer to retell it about a newly wed woman, who is asked whether her husband is handsome. “Compared to what?” she responds.

I was reminded about this particular version of Einstein’s theory of relativity by the title of the new HBO TV series “True Detective” (Yes Oh [Channel 14], Tuesdays, 10:00 P.M.). The key word there is “true.” And the truth about “true” nowadays is that in order to know how true it is, we need to ask, “Compared to what?”

According to Nic Pizzolatto, the creator, writer and executive producer of the series, one of the (few) frames of reference concerning the novelty of his new “baby” is the fact that it’s not a crime case being opened and closed in 58 minutes of airtime, leaving the viewer satisfied with a riddle (who-why-and-how) solved, and enticed to follow the detective hero (or heroine, and usually in the plural) at the same time next week. On the show’s website, Pizzolatto says that unlike other detective TV series – and like in real life – solving a crime case on “True Detective” (if it does indeed have a satisfying resolution) may take weeks, months and possibly years, meaning that if you are going to get hooked on it, you’d better be ready for the long haul.

So far (not very: episode 3, “The Locked Room,” was broadcast here last week), so very good. To begin with, “True Detective” is not a “one-crime-one-investigation-at-a-time” series. It is about a crime, or series of crimes, and two investigations (at least). One of them takes place in Louisiana, in 1995. Two state police detectives, new partners in crime-fighting Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), try – and apparently succeed, although we are not told how and what they discover – to solve a mystery involving a naked dead female body, tied up and left in the woods with antlers on her head.

But this is only the half – or less – of it. Seventeen years later, it turns out that whatever solution Cohle and Hart found at the time was not the right one, for the killer is still seemingly at large, although we are not told what crime he (or she) has committed. Cohle and Hart, who had since moved on and are not partners anymore, are summoned, separately, to recap their investigation for the detectives dealing with the case now. Such a set of circumstances, by the way, is not new: another U.S. series, “Cold Case” (2003-2010), was all about a team of detectives trying to resolve cases of yesteryear.

Before going further into the woods of “true-untrue,” one should note that any new detective TV series has to come up with a detective – or detectives – who will serve as a magnet for viewers. And in this respect, Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga (director and executive producer) have succeeded in threading a road many had travelled before. Cohle and Hart (McConaughey and Harrelson also executive producers) are as intriguing as any sleuthing couple since the invention of the genre, in print at the end of the 19th century, with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – themselves back on TV screens nowadays in two series, one British (“Sherlock”), the other American (“Elementary”).

It’s not a whim of mine, mentioning the archetypes and indeed prototypes of “the detective and his sidekick” team in this context: Cohle is as eccentric and misanthropic as Holmes was; Hart is the “squarer” of the two – even if there is much more (and much uglier) in him compared to the good doctor. The relationship between Cohle and Hart – shown in retrospect (1995) and present-day (2012) – is, in a way, even more volatile and fascinating than the one between Holmes and Watson.

The point that the creators of “True Detective” are trying to make is summed up by a quote from Nietzsche on a promotional poster for the series: “Man is the cruelest animal.” This is corroborated by a statement on the show’s official website: “The timelines braid and converge in 2012 as each man is pulled back into a world they believed they’d left behind. In learning about each other and their killer, it becomes clear that darkness lives on both sides of the law.”

That “darkness” and “cruelty” – apparently an inherent part of being “human,” no matter if you are an elusive criminal or a very visible crime fighter, private (as so many) or official (as in this and many other books and series) – is the rub. By highlighting it, “True Detective” stakes its claim for veracity and novelty, especially when compared to other TV detective series.

They do have a point here, if you think about run-of-the-mill detective TV series, and “True Detective” has generated quite a lot of interest since its first episode was broadcast. I, for one, will be following it avidly, as I’m really interested to know what makes Cohle and Hart tick (and both of them seem to present intricate human mechanisms), even more than I care about who murders whom, and why.

Having said that, I’d like to point out that there’s nothing new in the premise of the show, purporting to portray human nature in its cruelest, most unfavorable light by using the seemingly formulaic genre of the “police procedural.” That is precisely the way two of the greatest American proponents of the genre saw human nature: both sides of the law.

Here is a very famous quote from Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man, and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world ... He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him ... The story is the man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure ... If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.” (From “The Simple Art of Murder.”)

In comparison, Cohle and Hart are both tarnished, even if they are not themselves mean, but that only opens up possibilities for developments and revelations in future episodes. And here, to complement Chandler, are a couple of quotes from Ross Macdonald, the creator of Lew Archer: “Freud was one of the greatest influences on me. He made myth into psychiatry, and I’ve been trying to turn it back into myth again.” And: “Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart.” Nietzsche couldn’t have put it better.

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective.' Credit: AP