Monday, February 10, 2014

TV Timeout: Why True Detective is Changing the Game Even More


I can only think of one other time where I deviated my content from the silver screen to turn attention to the happenings on television.  It was the early days of Breaking Bad when, after only a few episodes, I could see the sea change at hand, where smart television shows were shaping into extended films.  Breaking Bad mixed the small screen with the big better than anyone before, intensifying the drama, the human connection, and the cinematography of cinematic storytelling we have all seen in some of the best films of all time.  I say all of that to say this: HBO has landed on something as special and as unforgettable as Breaking Bad, their best show since The Sopranos.  It is True Detective, and while it exists on a network that is always ahead of the curve, last night's episode, number 4 of 8 of this first season, completely changed the game.

Let's slow down for a bit to unfold True Detective for those curious masses out there.  True Detective is unconventional in the fact that it is an anthology series.  This means that next season, there will be a new cast and a new set of circumstances.  We have seen this happen before in American Horror Story, only American Horror Story wishes it had compelling writing and fascinating characters like True Detective.  This debut season stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as Martin Hart and Rusty Chole, two detectives with wildly different backgrounds.  Harrelson's Hart is a family man with a wife and small children, though his friendliness with the bottle and the women have already begun to unravel his world.  McConaughey's Chole, on the other hand, is a much less transparent, much more complex character.

There is a murder which sets the plot in motion, an elaborate and satanic murder.  The murder occurs in 1996, and the series is framed by an interrogation of both Hart and Chole in the present day, in separate rooms at different times.  The framing of the series felt like a gimmick early on, but as we learn about these characters this season, things feel less and less like a gimmick.  In 1996, Hart is a company cop who can't keep his personal life in order, while Chole is detailed, disciplined, and working every minute to keep certain demons at bay.  One of the first and most effective skills of the story is its ability to set a stage, then flip everything.  Early on, McConaughey's character seems difficult and unapproachable, a hardnosed detective obsessed with his work and virtually unlikeable.  Harrelson's character comes across as a loving man who works hard in his job and has little patience for such an inaccessible person as Chole.

Then the tables begin to turn.  By the time episode four began last night, the tables had completely turned for me regarding the perception of these two men.  Through the first three episodes we have learned about both Chole and Hart.  We have learned about Chole's lost family, his dead child, and his ex-wife.  But there is still a mysterious edge to his police work.  Regarding Hart, we have discovered his alcoholism, his infidelity, as he has digressed into a more pathetic and less noble character.  It's almost as if the perception of these characters had flipped, with Chole blossoming into the more likable of the duo.  As the partners close in on their murder suspect, a very disturbing murderer to be sure, their personal lives seem to be heading in different directions. 

All the while there is the present-day narrative, still loaded with mystery.  We see Chole in the present day as a shell of a man with long hair and ragged skin, drinking Lone Star beer and mowing down cigarettes one after another.  Meanwhile, Hart's interrogation (with the same officers) shows Hart as a man who is put together.  Wearing a suit and tie, well kempt, Hart is the very opposite of what he has become in 1996.  The direction of the detectives interrogating both Hart and Chole are still a mystery, yet we are getting closer to understanding the deep and dark issues which drive said interrogations.

Which leads me to last night, where True Detective took on a new face and a new skin.  This is cinematic storytelling with the advantage of working with eight hours.  Without getting into too many details, Chole has decided to travel back into his old life and his old problems in order to infiltrate a biker gang to catch the murderer.  That is all I will say regarding plot, but what takes center stage in the final moments of True Detective is the cinematography.  There is a final climactic scene of episode four which becomes a six-minute uninterrupted shot.  Some of the greats have pulled off uninterrupted scenes in their greatest films.  We all remember Scorsese's shot in Goodfellas through the back of the Copacabana.  Alfonso Cuaron directed a fantastic extended shot beyond ten minutes in his Sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men.  This final moment in episode four of True Detective rivals both.  I know this is a bold statement, but anyone who takes the time to watch episode four will agree.  It is a scene you must see more than once to see everything, and to truly appreciate the craftsmanship at work.

I know I have skipped over so many wonderful elements of True Detective for the sake of time and space, including the great Michelle Monghan as Hart's wife, Maggie.  It isn't a new notion that television shows have taken cinematic cues, but here is a series which sharpens their skills better than any series before.  Yes, better than any series.  There are intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the series and the script that heighten each and every scene throughout, and there is no denying the power of True Detective.  It is a shame there are only four more episodes this year, and if they plan on changing characters and narratives next season, I suggest the powers that be bear down and work hard to match the incredible intensity of this debut.

Stay tuned for an episode breakdown from here on out...