Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: True Detective truly brilliant

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Chris Philpott says the first season of True Detective became something truly special.
Matthew McConaughey and woody Harrelson were just so damn engaging.
Matthew McConaughey and woody Harrelson were just so damn engaging.

This story contains spoilers. Do not read on if you haven't seen the entire first season of True Detective.

We watched Rust and Marty take down the monster at the end of the dream. We met the Yellow King, and we visited Carcosa. And we sat back, relieved, after our heroes came through the other side.

The only question remaining: was the finale of True Detective satisfying on a story-telling level? I think it most certainly was.

I loved True Detective. From the first moments of the opening episode, I was all in on the adventures of Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart, a pair of television detectives - played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, both at their peak right now - who should be remembered as two of the best crime-fighters we've ever seen on TV.

The show was visually arresting, becoming more beautiful in each successive episode as director Cary Fukunaga grew increasingly comfortable with how to film his stars and the content.

The creepy scenes at the home of the Yellow King/Spaghetti Monster (aka Errol), and the surrounding woodland of "Carcosa" during the finale gave the climactic sequence a beautiful, otherworldly feel which Fukunaga tapped into throughout these eight episodes.

I'm not saying I'd like to build a summer home in Carcosa or anything, but the trees were actually quite lovely.

The series was brilliantly written by creator Nic Pizzolatto, packed with obscure cultural references - the Yellow King and Carcosa are references to Robert W Chambers' short story collection The King In Yellow from 1895 - and subtle character nuances: Errol, the Spaghetti Monster from the final episodes, instantly adopts James Mason's accent from North By Northwest because, as explained by Pizzolatto, the character taught himself how to talk by watching films.

True Detective didn't break too much new ground in terms of story devices and details, but it was all done in a new and refreshing way. Many crime thrillers cover the same spooky ground - TV3's Hannibal features prominent use of antlers, for example - but few used these details in the same way as True Detective, a true character piece, used them.

And at the end of it all, the characters were the main focus of the series. As I watched the show, I started to feel like the story that started with Dora Lange's disappearance in 1995 was actually less important than the growth and change in our guides through that story.

Rust Cohle, the philosophising redneck with a penchant for Lone Star beer, went from a broken man when we first met him, to adopting a more optimistic demeanour by the end; one of his final lines - "once, there was only dark; ask me, I think the light's winning" - is certainly proof of that.

Even the belligerent Marty Hart, who seemed to have hardly changed between 1995 and 2012, turned out to have been on his own journey, losing everything after turning his own family against him and leaving the force. The version of Hart who helped Rust out of his wheelchair in those final moments was a much softer man than we were introduced to.

As far as the final episode goes, I thought it was necessary to follow a more straightforward format. The case of the Yellow King wasn't the focus of the show, but it had become a big enough part of the True Detective landscape that it needed to be concluded in this way.

The result was more action than we'd seen in any episode of the show, which in turn took time away from the characters - yet, it's telling that Pizzolatto wrote the episode in such a way that the hospital sequence, and that lovely heart-to-Hart scene, put a full stop on this season of the show.

There was more action in the final episode than we'd seen in any episode of the show.
There was more action in the final episode than we'd seen in any episode of the show.

Would I have preferred to dig more deeply into the Carcosa conspiracy and learn more about the horrors therein? Yes and no. I'm a sucker for a creepy story, so the antics in Carcosa appealed to that side of me. But I'm also glad Pizzolatto didn't set sights on the Tuttle family. I've been saying all along that a big name mastermind - someone like Billy Lee Tuttle - was far too predictable a direction for a show like this to take.

I'm glad Pizzolatto didn't go that way purely because it protects the sanctity of what we have in these eight episodes.

True Detective wasn't perfect, by any means. Outside of Hart and Cohle, the show was light on meaningfully developed characters, and I think the lack of strong female characters - the main women in the show: Hart's mistreated wife, Hart's mistreated mistress, Errol's crazy sister-wife - definitely hurt a show that was, at its worst, a sausage-fest.

The criticisms are easy to look past, however, when everything around them is this good. The gender issue is less problematic when the point of the series is more toward philosophy than physicality, and the lack of character depth was no issue because McConaughey and Harrelson were just so damn engaging.

True Detective is sure to go down as one of the best shows of the year, sure to be fighting for Emmy Awards come September - and you can engrave the Best Actor - Mini-Series trophy with McConaughey's name now.

It might have been slow at times, but this was an engrossing eight episodes of top-quality drama. And while Hart and Cohle won't be back, I'm excited to see what Pizzolatto lines up for the second season of his anthology show.

* What did you think of the season finale? Post your comments below.

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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