[Consider this a counterpoint to "The 'Have You Seen My Favorite Show' Conversation" - Editor]
I’ve talked in previous articles about how the television industry has made a tectonic-sized shift in how shows are produced. To sum up thoughts: it appears that the “diamond in the rough” philosophy of television production is behind us. Fox, NBC, and CBS have often found that throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks will reveal a gem of a television program that people genuinely enjoy. But for every diamond found, there are 20 heaping sacks of coal that get thrown to the curb, shows that are forgotten before they even had a chance.The shift’s epicenter, I believe, is the amount of artistic control that studios are willing to give to show creators.
Now, I don’t sit in on studio exec meetings and this is nothing but an educated guess. But the evidence is right there. What was everyone talking about this past week? The quirky comedy Rake starring Greg Kinnear as the offbeat lawyer who says and does as he pleases? No. Everyone talked about season two of House of Cards, which was produced by and is exclusively available on a pay-to-stream movie website. Now, I’ve never seen Rake, so for all I know this hypothesis I’ve set up is completely false. Maybe it is a good show, and I’ve got this all wrong. But consider this: Six years ago the very idea that a movie streaming website could even compete with network television was completely laughable, and my how the tables have turned.
Even Netflix had to emulate the blueprints of creating an intriguing, enticing, and high-concept show from somewhere, right? HBO has been creating original content for nearly two decades and they have a resume of shows that puts them in a completely different league than the competition (though Netflix seems to be starting a good run). In keeping with this pattern, HBO is five episodes in to its most recent show, True Detective. This thing was like a ghost that appeared out of nowhere. I remember hearing rumblings a while ago that a new HBO crime series was set to star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, two actors you would expect to associate themselves with a feature length film rather than a TV show. Then, one day, it was there. I logged on to my HBO-Go account and watched the first episode. I was blown away, and here are the reasons why.
T-Bone Burnett is probably the best guy working in Hollywood who you’ve never heard of. He is one of the most desired men when it comes to music composition and production in the industry. He’s worked on a wide array of films from The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and Walk the Line to The Hunger Games and Across the Universe and many more. Music is an often overlooked aspect of film and television, but this is because the best use of it is felt in such a passive manner that it isn’t consciously registered during an initial viewing. Even still, it’s difficult not to notice just how great the title song/sequence is. Never mind the greatness of the track selection for the opening/closing credits, the original score throughout the show is just amazing, all thanks to T-Bone Burnett.
I am going to tread as lightly as possible here so as to not inadvertently spoil anything for the unsuspecting virgin to the show. The basic outline of True Detective is that we witness two different timelines at the same time. The first is of the initial investigation of a ritual murder by Rustie Cohle and Martin Hart (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson respectively) in 1995. The second is seen through a series of interviews of the same, though much older, characters in 2012. Writer Nic Pizzolatto does so much with this dynamic. We see how these characters have changed. A subtle game of cat and mouse is played: where one question is answered, five more must be asked. And, most importantly, we learn more about the current state of Cohle and Hart by bearing witness to their experiences of the past. These parallel storylines are such an integral dynamic for the show, one I don’t think it would be successful without.
I mentioned earlier that Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are actors you would usually associate with blockbuster film rather than a television series. Yet, there is something to be said that both actors also hold executive producer credits on the show. This is clearly an indication that they believed in what Pizzolatto was trying to create and were willing to do quite a bit to make it happen. I likewise think that Pizzolatto created two very attractive characters for method actors like McConaughey and Harrelson.
This also speaks to the show as a whole. The show doesn’t quite seem like a TV show, it actually feels like a movie. Not just in the acting, the cinematography and directing are more indicative of something you would see in a theatre rather than a television.
“Oh it’s a crime drama? So where does it take place, New York or Chicago?” Part of this new era of television we are beginning to see is more thinking outside of the box. In short, the metropolitan crime drama has been chewed up, spit out and currently resides under some poor soul’s sneakers.
You know what hasn’t been done on television? Ritualistic cult murders in the American bible belt! Well, maybe it has, but not quite like this. This is another example of how filmmakers took what could easily be a passive element of a show— the location—and turned it into something so important you can hardly imagine it set anywhere else. Hart and Cohle’s journey takes us from the deep bayou, to barn house raves, to lavish lake houses, to the drug-dealing inner neighborhoods.
I’m five episodes into this show and I am finding it really hard to doubt the long-term success it will have. Now, I have been wrong about these kinds of things before. Sometimes the first season is phenomenal and then it’s all down here from there (se:e The Newsroom). But, this one… this one’s got it. It is my guess that Pizzolatto has wrapped up the entire Cohle and Hart storyline by the end of this season and they won’t be reappearing in future seasons. Plus I’m sure McConaughey and Harrelson have other projects they are committed to. This is perhaps a hint that we will see a completely different storyline from season to season. Something to the effect of American Horror Story. True Detective is such an ambiguous title for a show that it really has an open playing field when it comes to what they do next. Whatever it is, I guarantee you I’ll be watching.
Luke Johnsen writes about movies and TV for BroBible. Follow him on Twitter.