True Detective – The best TV show ever?

*NOTE – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT TRUE DETECTIVE*

The nature of TV shows has changed dramatically in the years since Lost and The Sopranos first graced our tubes. Those two programmes were the innovators of a new generation that has made the small screen now as culturally important as the silver screen when it comes to telling stories that matter, utilising a budget that allows a world beating aesthetic.

Following Lost the nature of high concept shows became just that; a high concept without any real substance to back it up. The likes of Flashforward and Terra-Nova proved that without the characterisation to partner the intrigue, audiences would simply disengage.

Then came Breaking Bad and everything changed again. Suddenly audiences were given a set of characters so indelible, that the world at large kicked into a furious fever when the eventual fate of Walter White was to be revealed.

All of this proved that for a show to succeed and be revered for all time, it would need to nail every single element in every single frame. The audience wanted a concept that could carry a long form story, with a hint of mystery and intrigue, and characters that you could truly invest in; people whose lives you could become so entangled in, that you almost forget the larger elements of story resolution, and can instead just happily watch the interplay of these people’s lives happen for hours on end.

So stepped forth True Detective.

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It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that led Nic Pizzolatto’s masterpiece of TV to become easily the best show of 2014 (yeah I know the year’s not done, but my mind isn’t going to be changed), but I think it would have to be the central characters.

Like the story itself, the personas of Rust and Marty were confusing at first. The fact we were cutting across 20 years of story aided that. But it was obvious both men had demons. Their skeletons would reveal themselves over a slow burn relationship, which could so easily have been the stereotypical “I don’t wanna be his partner” cop routine, but instead became reminiscent of the age old science vs faith confrontation. Both men were stubborn about their knowledge and their beliefs. Rust was more meditative whilst Marty was brash and uncouth, yet neither was prepared to back down. This often jarring relationship led to philosophical questions of time and space, religion and love that became the backbone of what the whole show pointed to.

That point was the purpose of life. At the very end of the show when Rust and Marty looked up at the night sky Marty notes how much darkness there is and Rust replies “yeah, but the light is winning”. They gave the best part of their lives to fill the world with just a little more light, and in that moment it is sense of purpose that becomes the resolution of True Detective, not catching a criminal or struggling with demons, but finding meaning in life. As with the conclusion of Lost we come to realise (if we didn’t already know) that it is the story of people, not specific events, that matters most.

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That’s not to say that other elements didn’t play their part in making True Detective so great. The Louisiana swamp land setting was in itself a masterstroke, providing a great visual companion to the stark nature of the plot, the isolation felt by the majority of the characters and the eeriness of the backwater religious underpinnings that ran slow and sludgy, creeping behind every suspicious face.

Then there was the stellar direction from Cary Fukunaga (who has since been named as the director of Stephen King’s It remake). In particular the episode entitled Who Goes There, which saw Rust going undercover with a biker gang, featured some of the best blocking and action sequencing I’ve seen in a long time. Towards the end of the episode when Rust had to escape from a drug dealer’s house in the midst of a fire-fight that spanned an entire neighbourhood, the direction was simply sublime in setting up the visceral tension, and following the action with an unflinching camera across streets and through houses.

If I did have to pick a flaw with the show, it would probably be the relationship between Marty and his teenage daughter. For all the subverting of clichés the show managed, this was perhaps the only example of a stereotypical parent-not-‘getting’-their-child situation. Though it did allow for more weight in terms of Marty’s decline (which led to his eventual redemption) it felt little more than a kitchen sink kind of affair, complete with an Eastenders level slap in the face to create audience shock. But this is true nitpicking (which would make a great title for an article by someone who didn’t like the show), and when compared to the show as a whole, this miniscule element was very much a nothing.

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And what about the decision to only run 8 episodes and make the whole thing only one story? How courageous is that decision, particularly for an American production. But that just added to the brilliance of it. By creating a single run show, that aired over a few weeks, True Detective managed to capture its audience in a way few shows these days can hope to do. Far more people (that I know) were watching the show week on week, rather than recording it for later viewing, as they would something like The Walking Dead. I can only assume that it was the very fact that they knew the end was coming, which convinced them they had to see it ASAP. But this led to the old school ‘water cooler’ situation where I found I was having weekly debates and conversations about what was happening, and it reminded me how good that real time community experience is. So with any hope True Detective will lead to a raft of shows that fit the ‘one shot’ mould and the world of voracious media consumers will have things to talk about together again!

As I ramble on it becomes obvious that for me, True Detective was THE perfect show. It represents the very best in technical prowess, story telling, performances and future proofing for live TV watching.

Most importantly it mattered. It knew what to say and said it in the best way. So let’s all applaud in appreciation for the fact that True Detective is about everything. In just 8 episodes it covered the same thematic ground as 6 seasons of Lost, it covered the same dilemmas about honesty and moral standing in terms of family as did 5 seasons of Breaking Bad, and it did so whilst exploring deep rooted fears about the occult, the justice system and the nature of evil. But somewhere along the way it also spoke to each and every one of us.

That’s how you make TV!

James is a movie obsessive with a particular love for scores and screenplays. He has written for numerous blogs, sites and cinemas and has been involved in several screenwriting projects. He can usually be found in front of a large plasma screen devouring Westerns, 80s pulp, Jimmy Stewart movies or anything by the Coens.

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