By Blake Baxter
Television, like farming, began as primitive and straightforward, but has become significantly more complex over time. With this metaphor, your first impulse might be to think of a TV show as a plant. You acquire the seeds (actors, crew, etc.), you plant them into a particular patch of land (a specific, unchanging setting), you do a little nurturing (create a simple premise, develop some formulaic plotting), let nature do the rest, and watch your plant bear fruit, (a good ole fashioned TV show!).
In the post-Golden Age of television, though, the conventional wisdom is that creating a single TV series is more like planting an entire garden, a farm even. A simple plant won’t do anymore, and you can’t always trust nature to take its course; it takes technology and bioengineering, along with the basics and the hard work that you needed in the old days to create something lush. It simply takes more ingenuity to produce a crop satisfactory for a customer base that craves goods richer than ever. Which, sans agricultural imagery, is another way of saying that, these days, it takes a great deal of science to create exceptional art – in the medium of television, at least.
I bring all of this up, not to lecture you on the evolution of television, but instead because sometimes I think this grandiose narrative has been overplayed. Sometimes, I think we have a tendency to overlook the value of the basics. It’s not so much that I yearn for the old days – trust me, I’m not one to wallow in nostalgia – it’s that some present-day shows epitomize this, and it’s impossible to ignore.
True Detective, which premiered on HBO this past Sunday, is a show with great seeds, and I suspect that that more than anything else is what will make it worthwhile in the end. (I say “in the end,” as opposed to “throughout” because True Detective is an anthology series rather than a serial, as most prestige dramas tend to be. This specific story will only last eight episodes, so just one episode in and the end is already in sight.) As the title suggests, True Detective is a mystery. The draw, beyond the pair of movie stars who portray the main characters, is two mysteries unraveling on two separate but connected timelines.
In the past – 1995, to be specific – detectives, Martin Hart (veteran actor Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (professional shapeshifter Matthew McConaughey), begin looking into a rather macabre murder scene in a Louisiana sugar field that spawns a sprawling investigation involving ritualistic sacrifices, satanic symbols and “a green-eared spaghetti monster” (and that’s just in the first episode!). In the present – the year 2012 – two other detectives are interviewing “Rust” and “Marty” about the duo’s apparently solved 1995 case. The problem, which Detective Maynard Gilbough and Detective Thomas Papania reveal at the end of the hour, is that there’s reason to believe the killer is still out there.
If that premise sounds enticing to you, then you will be hooked from the get go, but even if it doesn’t quite sound like your thing, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. What kept my attention in the opening hour wasn’t really the overarching serial killer mystery; instead I was pulled in by the smaller mysteries revolving around the characters that Harrelson, and especially McConaughey, so compellingly brought to life.
In January of 1995, Marty and Rust are relatively new partners. They have been together for three months, and they are still feeling each other out to an extent, or at least Marty is; Rust seems to be indifferent about most things. You can tell that both men were once handsome, but their faces are starting to weather from either the accumulated years of a punishing job or possibly something else, something more. As Hart, Harrelson has a full head of thin blonde hair and a permanently etched hard expression on his face. As Rust, McConaughey has disheveled hair and a clean-shaven, angular face; his slight body is in stark contrast to Marty’s bulky frame. From the flashbacks, it’s apparent that Hart is the no-nonsense, fact-driven guy, while Rust, decidedly, is the eccentric.
However, fortunately, these two aren’t the classic odd couple that supplement each other’s strengths and get along famously. On the contrary, Marty and Rust have a realistically uneasy partnership; however it’s not from a lack of effort on Hart’s part. Hart prods Rust about his personal life and regrets it once Rust starts waxing philosophic about his pitch-black worldview, which he likens to realism, but to my mind, sounds more like nihilism. Marty invites Rust to dinner with his family, but is mortified when he shows up inebriated.
In the present, we learn that the partnership, as unsteady as it may have been, managed to last seven years before it ended for reasons unclear. It’s implied that the split wasn’t under the best of circumstances, though. Nevertheless, Marty insists he has nothing against Rust, though he says he hasn’t seen or heard from him in ten years. “That’s the shit that leads to cancer,” he quips, if you can even call it a quip. Hart hasn’t exactly lightened up over the years, if anything he’s grown even more somber. He’s bald, too, but there seems to be something vaguely off about him beyond his physical appearance. As for the 2012 incarnation of Rust, there’s a lot off about him; he has the look of a whole different man. In his former self’s stead is a mustachioed McConaughey with unkempt, shoulder length hair. Whereas Hart is sporting a suit that hints he could still be on “the job,” Rust’s rustic attire and predilection for day drinking suggests that his days as a detective took place in a different lifetime entirely.
Although we spend virtually the whole hour with them, there is still a lot to be learned about our main characters. We know Rust once had a daughter, and that her passing led to the break up of his marriage. We also know Rust was a recovering alcoholic in 1995, but has fallen completely off the wagon by 2012. Marty recognizes that Rust is smart, yet he struggles to comprehend his disconnect with reality. How could such an intuitive, well-read man not know the name of the Governor? On the flip side, we know how Marty sees Rust and how he sees himself – as a “regular type dude with a big-ass dick,” he says with a straight face – but the first episode doesn’t give us too much of a sense of how Rust views Marty. It’s possible that Rust is such a tortured introvert that he doesn’t even size him up. As the details of these two mysterious, brooding men come to light during this dark hour, the viewer makes a subtle but important transition from curious observer to outright detective.
It’s a slow introductory hour, but the previews show that there’s a lot of action to come. The tagline – “Man is the cruelest animal” – as well as the cryptic bits of dialogue in the trailer suggest that once True Detective gets rolling it will reveal itself to be about good, evil and the nature of man. Whether or not it has anything original or interesting to say about those subjects beyond “Man can be cruel” remains to be seen. Whether or not the grand mystery will bear fruit is up in the air, too. But, if nothing else, at least we know True Detective has good seeds. Stay tuned.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.