Mid-Season Catch-Up: We’re All Agreed That True Detective Is Crazy Good Television, Right?

The Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey-led show is more than just Dead Girl Television.

A couple of mismatched homicide detectives are given a new case: the assaulted and mutilated body of a young girl. What they find on their journey towards the truth may make them question everything they stand for, and humanity itself.

Sound familiar? It absolutely should. Last December, when we wrapped up the year in TV, too many shows were about deceased young things and the damaged folk who found their killers. Hannibal, Top of the Lake, Broadchurch, The Bridge, Luther, The Killing and The Fall all tackled the topic to varying success. Good and bad options alike, we’re up to our armpits in the corpses of the innocent; we’re facing a glut of Dead Girl TV. So you might wonder why HBO, still the most varied and adventurous of cable programmers, would waste the time of big movie stars (not to mention audiences)?

True Detective stars perennial favourite Woody Harrelson and comeback king Matthew McConaughey, duelling drawls and spittin’ tobaccy as they track down a perverted perp. You’re forgiven for checking your calendar to make sure it’s not 2001, or whatever year this very same idea must have been pitched for the first time. It seems too obvious and stale, a plate of reheated BBQ and beans. But if True Detective is running down such a tawny old trope, how does it still manage to keep me on the edge of the couch, arms wrapped round my head like I’m awaiting impact? We’re all agreed this show’s crazy good, right?

Thank Heaven For Little Girls

Hollywood hacks must sing that song, and its praises, every day. It’s a never-emptying well of drama. As children, the first stories we learn are those about the most innocent in danger: of the kiddies, pure of heart, chased down by witches and hunters and wolves. It’s little wonder that storytellers head back to the source: the stakes are high and we all understand the score – we were once so naïve; that could have been us! These forensic investigations of the Big Bad Wolf have been played out again and again, but just like an old folk favourite, its quality lies in the playing.

In the instance of True Detective, our two detectives approach the case from opposite angles. Rusty Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) are not the extreme opposites of a Murphy/Nolte or Bullock/McCarthy pairing, but instead two sides of the same Southern coin. Maybe it’s because of this that the partnership fizzes as angrily as a nickel in cola. Hart has two girls of his own and a screwed opinion of just how a man might “own” a woman, be she his offspring, wife or mistress. Cohle has lost a daughter and a wife, and his lock pick-like way with criminal thought patterns reveals a predilection for the macabre.

Both look uncomfortably noosed by their neck ties, strangled into order by the law they preserve, though Hart seems to want to keep the world at bay, while Cohle knows its himself who’s the real danger. Hart shuts his eyes to what he doesn’t want to see; Cohle stares at the eclipse. Any levity in the show comes from this pairing; it’s goofball enough to inspire parody and should be thematically rich enough to inspire study (lookout for a ‘Which True Detective Are You?’ quiz, coming soon to your Facebook feed yesterday).


The show starts with the intersecting recollections of the two, now nearly two decades past the big case around which the show seems to be set. But why are they being interviewed about this? What do the other two detectives think these guys have to offer? And what do the show’s makers think these two characters — a volatile family man and burnt out husk — have to add to televisions long roster of cops? The bigger question is the more interesting. True Detective’s real winning power is not in that we want to get to the bottom of the mysterious case, it’s that we want to get to the bottom of the show.

Like A Wheel Within A Wheel

With deep-readings of True Detective springing up left and right, it’s a fun rabbit hole to run down. What do you make of Cohle’s inter-dimensional time/space philosophies? The biblical allusions? The literary references? The gaps in people’s pasts and the unreliability of our narrators? Those little tin can men Cohle makes, or the Big Hug Mug he’s ashing in? Is this story stuck on a loop to prove a point? Was that long shot in episode four a stylistic masterpiece, or a comment on existing in a moment, shifting gears and bucking the systematic time loop that governs us all?

Is it possible to discuss this show without sounding like a washed out, mentally damaged cop on his fifth can of Lone Star?

True Detective may not be about a murder, or a series of them, or plot, or character, or anything. It might not even be TV as we know it. It might be one big tone piece, a grimy mind-fuck of feeling. An essay on obsession, like David Fincher’s Zodiac, or a broad stroke portrait of a country gone rancid, like Ellroy’s American Tabloid trilogy. Maybe it’s a patchwork of what it means to be Southern, or American, or how we keep repeating our mistakes: wars, poverty, marriage, institutions. By seeding in a little of everything, but starting with a well-known genre base, True Detective continues to feel less like the conspiracy mish-mash it could be, and more like the tasty gumbo it is. Everything in there counts. It’s all connected!

"Yes it's a clue. That's a clue, this is a clue, you're a clue, I'm a clue. Gotdarn it Marty, everything's a gotdarn clue!"

“Yes it’s a clue. That’s a clue, this is a clue, you’re a clue, I’m a clue. Gotdarn it Marty, everything’s a gotdarn clue!”

Just What Crime Are We Trying To Solve? 

The Wire, Justified, and even Breaking Bad point to the idea of criminality as birthed by a deprived and unsupported community. The dockworkers and corner boys and ex-coal miners of America certainly still have the choice to remain on the right side of the law, but just how much support is in place to hold them there?

True Detective hints at the same concept, with a washed-out Louisiana painted, as Cohle puts it, like “one ghetto, man”. The decrepit schools deserted by district and underage brothels blind-eyed by the law, all lost between tracts of undeveloped land, are breeding grounds for insidious criminality. Housing estates break into police riots. Undercover cops are left under too long, trauma victims of their time serving the populis. Where’s the order in any of this?

Maybe, after sympathising for so long with gangsters, crooked cops and serial liars and men of vice, we’re stuck in this rut of Dead Girl TV because it’s the final frontier, the step too far we can all agree upon. If the line between good and bad has been fudged and smudged so far by fiction, leaving all our television landscapes a grey blur, then we still need a defining evil, a divider for us and them. True Detective has released a barrel of red herrings into its swampy waters — potentially-corrupt task forces, on-the-take governors, evangelical Christians and even our two new favourite protagonists might be behind these nefarious doings. Do I care who killed those girls, in careful, cinematic ways, just like so many other girls are killed and shot and served up in our living rooms? No, I don’t. I hope television leaves off on sickos for a while after this. But I’m suckered in for the long haul of True Detective, because it feels like this show is trying to solve something bigger.

True Detective screens at 6.30pm on Monday nights, on Showcase.

Matt Roden helps kids tell stories by day at the Sydney Story Factory, and by night helps adults admit to stupidity by co-running Confession Booth and TOD Talks. He is 2SER’s resident TV critic — each Tuesday morning at 8.20am — and his illustration and design work can be seen here.