True Detective: comically bad = masterpiece?

I have this vision; it’s 9:15am on a Wednesday; Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are still drunk; hunched over in an aisle at Sears; arguing over which lawnmower replacement blade to buy; and it’s the most riveting scene I see all year.

When we started this blog, it was our desire to write about every aspect of the human experience. We’ve covered culture, news, lunacy, war & politics, belligerence, history, alien-viciousness, sports, and the circus. Now we’ll add film and television reviews because it pleases us. Please don’t object. Your cooperation is appreciated.

Oh by the way, every review I conduct will contain spoilers. I’m never going to mention this again. So here you go, for the last time:


And if somebody is new to this blog down the road and has their experience spoiled? Well [shrugs], my Guests won’t object. So why should you? Why should I? Why should any of us?! [cricket, cricket, cricket]

First up, True Detective!

Everything about this series’ acclaim makes about as much sense as McConaughey’s rambling existential nonsense. But when you watch it, it plugs your brain into a deep-drug-induced coma. You can’t look away. It’s just too good.

Yet when you step back and really think about it, it’s almost comical with what’s in play. Nic Pizzolatto’s writing structure comes off like a five-year-old’s book report on a typical police thriller. This miniseries is a recipe for disaster. It has all the elements of Awful Cop Show #92.6e. Please consider:

– a buddy cop flick where they’re the original odd couple

– one partner is the regular and in a troubled cop marriage; the other is a creepy weirdo outsider

– they fight over everything; including the wife; while they solve crimes together

– the creepy one spouts philosophy so wild and twisted it’d make Kant’s ghost cross-eyed and angry

– we time travel between eras of the story in a jarring manner worse than Timecop 6: Destiny of Hair

Babel has an easier plot to follow (PS Babel sucks)

– a massive-serial-killing-child-kidnapping-cult so unbelievable it hurts your liver

– every six seconds a Police Cops show cliché written by previously mentioned five-year-old emerges

These are the reasons a lot of critics don’t approve of the show. This series should have failed, horribly. And in retrospect, I don’t favor it as much as I did when I watched it. But still, overall I consider it awesome. I truly enjoyed this ride. So the question foremost in my mind is:

Why does this miniseries not suck?

My Guests & I have identified several key areas which we’ll discuss in our usual lunatic manner. Please bask in the horror of the internal workings of our twisted minds. Or not. Either way.

1) McConaughey and Harrelson

These guys are incredibly talented actors who have something they used to call chemistry. These two dudes could spend twenty-minutes in a car arguing over who pumps the gas and it’d be interesting. It’s why the buddy cop routine doesn’t fail. They make it work because they took material that could have amounted to garbage and made it brilliant.

I cannot emphasize this enough, McConaughey and Harrelson make True Detective. They are the primary reason this show succeeds. I think when people say they loved the plot; they’re saying they enjoyed watching these guys work the case. When they say they enjoyed the smartness of the show’s outlook on life; they’re stating that they enjoyed watching McConaughey talk, about anything. In other actors’ hands, much of these scenes would come off as unwatchable hack trash.

You’ve got to hand it to them, these roles were an incredible challenge. Covering 17 years of a life and making it great is astounding. In manner, appearance, and character they had to evolve two decades. They make it work. More than that, they’re the masterpiece of this series. Very, very few actors on the planet could have done it.

McConaughey and Harrelson

Arguing over cereal is entertaining

2) Do the simple things right

Cary Fukunaga is a nobody director and producer. I think the guy doing Star Wars shorts down by the Sizzler has a more famous resume. But now Fukunaga’s won awards and is set to direct feature films. He deserves it. I’ll see them.

They took a crazy risk having one guy direct all eight episodes and it pays off. Fukunaga gets it done by doing the simple things right while also taking huge risks with the material he was given.

Once upon a time there was this thing called a setting. It’s where the story supposedly occurs. Somebody tell me the setting of Transformers 4 or Maleficent? If you said “hell”, you’d be right. But just as Baltimore is the primary star of The Wire, Louisiana gets top billing here. If McConaughey and Harrelson make this story work, the setting ensures the story thrives.

Fukunaga rediscovers the art of long establishing shots that don’t bore you to tears. This in itself was a big risk in our microsecond-smartphone-world. Prior to just about every meaningful scene Fukunaga patiently allows the setting, brilliantly appropriate music, and film aura to infect your consciousness. Only when you’re in the moment, does he get to the plot. Before one word of the scene is said, you’re already there. You’re in the story. This is a lost screen art. I want to hug Fukunaga for this aspect alone.

In the working end of telling that story, Fukunaga does it unassuming but well. Shooting it in an aggressive way would have exposed the silliness of the base structure. Cops in car, got it. Now they’re talking to some lady, got it. Oh, they’re in the office again, fair enough. Whatever.

I don’t know enough about film to talk blocking, angles, etc. But I know when something’s shot simple but brilliant. Too often today’s directors get overly fancy and you’re removed from the story because it looks weird. Hey I’m talking to you Paul Greengrass!

Think of how utterly bland the camerawork is in the McConaughey and Harrelson interview scenes. Fukunaga just shoves a camera eight inches from their faces and lets them talk for twelve minutes a pop. It’s insane but outstanding. I think Fukunaga knew enough that these guys were geniuses. Oh, okay, whatever, just shove the camera in their face. The audience will love it. Action!

Here was his chance to put on his I’m-an-Awesome-Director hat and hop around with his hands flailing in the air. To make his name in Hollywood with an in your face standout nightmare. Instead, Fukunaga puts his ego in check and allows the talents of his actors, composer, setting, and cinematographer to shine. And in the process, he shines.

Fukunaga also shows he can go complex too, but it’s used very sparingly and in an incredible way. The single camera shot at the end of episode four may be the best scene I’ve ever seen on television. Most losers would have done that scene with computers, or sixteen cameras, or enough cuts to make your head swim. Fukunaga puts you into the water alright; you’re floating around the action like a ghost. It’s a masterwork scene, a classic.


Hollywood needs more of you

3) Arcs and happiness

Almost nobody in Hollywood bothers with complex characters anymore. It’s hard, annoying, and gets in the way of all the computer work. What’s a character arc? Ah, isn’t that where the guy gets electrocuted by the death ray alongside all the ‘splosions?!

Even in today’s hyper-cynical-funeral-world, I still believe folks want to see arcs. Enter character, character incurs challenges, character overcomes challenges, character emerges from story a better person, exit character.

Yet this arc crap doesn’t exist in some of the most watched things on screen today; think the aforementioned Transformers (the most financially successful film of 2014) but also fan favorites like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Character arcs don’t occur in a story where every character can die in the next scene for shock value purposes. Or where your film star is a computer generated toy.

When discussing this series with one of two brothers (who I also co-write an unhinged-football-blog with [shameless plug]: ), one of the first positive things he mentioned to me about True Detective was roughly along the lines of “they lived”.

Didn’t you think at least one of them would die? I sure did. They didn’t. This left a lot of critics unhappy, they felt the story unfulfilled. A friend of ours had said he wanted it to end at the conclusion of episode seven where our scared dude comments upon his family’s longevity. Roll credits.

I couldn’t disagree more. This ending was so refreshing it left me cheering. The two of them concluded their arc, together, outside the hospital, joking, alongside McConaughey’s comments about the stars and his daughter. It left me a very happy man. Finally here was a screen experience that didn’t feel the need to end itself bathed in nihilism.

At the end these two characters are still horrible men, all their life’s problems aren’t solved. Harrelson and his family don’t fully reconcile, McConaughey’s still a drug-fueled-lunatic. But they’re better men than when their characters’ journeys began 17 years prior. They are happy in their own way. And this makes you happy. I like things that make me happy.


A setting, where things happen

4) The future

This series isn’t perfect. It think it could have been shorter, like five or six instead of eight episodes. McConaughey’s philosophy rants become overdone and tiresome. As does Harrelson’s quarrels with his wife and mistresses. And don’t forget all that kooky cop stuff I listed up front. As strong as True Detective is, it’s still built on some very shaky foundations.

So how do I think it’ll go for Season Two? I’m not encouraged. I really like the idea of Vince Vaughn and Rachel McAdams to take the place of McConaughey and Harrelson. But from what I’ve read, they won’t. Because somewhere in the mix is Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. Really? Farrell and Kitsch are going to poison it. I can’t stand these guys. They should just leave it with Vaughn and McAdams, but they won’t. Because now that True Detective is famous, they need an ensemble cast. I guess?

Fukunaga’s not back to direct the whole thing, just a few episodes, and so his singular vision is gone. Go back to the top and read my kooky cop show list. I don’t think Pizzolatto’s writing is strong enough to overcome the absence of McConaughey, Harrelson, and Fukunaga.

Maybe I’m wrong, so very wrong. Gee I sure hope so. But I think in Season Two we shall see the foundational flaws of True Detective overpower the positive experience. And it’ll all come apart. And Season One will be known in history as the lightning in a bottle. The one time where it all came together to work.

But if Season One is all there is it was worth it. True Detective could have been comically bad. Instead, I consider it a masterpiece. Let’s hope they can pull it off again in Season Two.

true detective

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