I’d pretty much had it with serial-killer narratives – on TV, in movies, in pop novels. I was tired of the dead-helpless-women trope that recurs in too many of these plots, weary of the murderers who are frequently portrayed as brilliant masterminds we’re meant to reluctantly admire, exhausted by the hardboiled ethos that’s accrued around the men and women who solve these cases. But then along came, last weekend, the premiere of True Detective, on HBO. It’s about two police homicide detectives in Louisiana and how they handled a very grim case.
The detectives are played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, initially as an almost comic odd couple. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a laconic good ol’ boy, a married-with-children working stiff. He’s paired with McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, a burned-out-case loner cop who’s coming off years as an undercover agent arresting drug dealers. They eye each other warily and play to each other’s strengths: Hart has a fine work ethic and a doggedly logical manner; Cohle is an obsessed workaholic and alcoholic, steeped in a half-eloquent, half-loony existential philosophy that leads him to make near-mystical divinations of human character that cohere as smart hunches.
True Detective is structured so that we watch Cohle and Hart investigate the first murder in 1995, and then the show cuts back and forth to present-day interviews with the two men: They’ve been called in by the police to be interrogated about their crime-solving methods, because another murder has been committed, and it’s possible that Cohle and Hart, who thought they’d caught their killer in the 1990s, may have fingered the wrong guy.
One thing that immediately distinguishes True Detective from other shows in this genre is its writing: All eight of its episodes (I’ve seen four so far) are written by one man, Nic Pizzolatto. A novelist and short-story writer, Pizzolatto is fond of something that’s usually the death of drama on TV: The monologue. Interviewed separately, McConaughey and Harrelson reel off pages of words, paragraph after paragraph, supposedly facing another cop but actually looking straight into the camera at us. And as their individual monologues proceed, their lives unravel for us: We learn about Hart’s disguised temper and marital infidelity; of the depth of Cohle’s despair for the worthiness of humanity. Pizzolatto’s scripts are rich with the eloquence of the everyday, of men straining to explain their lives in guarded language that ends up revealing more than they intend. Pizzolatto has an immense talent for the first-person-singular: I recommend his tough-guy novel Galveston (2010), also written in this style, as well.
Every episode of True Detective is also directed by one person, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the 2011 remake of Jane Eyre. The result of this one writer-one director creation gives True Detective a focus and intensity that transcends the suspense of who committed the killings. The series plays out like an exploration of spiritual exhaustion enlivened by the energy of ordinary life – it suggests that getting through the day, day after day, contains enough drama and comedy (and True Detective is fitfully hilarious) to sustain even the most played-out lives… and by extension, one of the most played-out genres in pop culture.