Yeah, True Detective is a Masterpiece


Yes, I’m late to the party. I don’t have cable, okay? I’ve spent the last several months dodging spoilers, which is like the exact opposite of an easy task. Worth it in the end, though. A few weeks ago, my hard work paid off and I started digging into one of the most talked-about television shows of recent years. My verdict? Holy moly, what a freakin’ show. Like, we’re talking “instant classic” material.

So imagine my disappointment when I started digging through backlogs of what people were writing a few months ago and discovered way too much off-topic debate over stuff that the show really just isn’t about. Complaints of a disappointing finale, of unresolved mystery, of lame character turns.

Well, better late than never. Let’s dive into spoiler-infested waters and suss out what it was that launched True Detective high into the ranks of my favorite shows of all time.


In terms of story, True Detective appears to be a Southern twist on the full-to-bursting television procedural genre. Well, a Southern procedural mixed with a philosophical buddy cop movie. Cosmetically, it also comes off at times like a bayou cousin of the hyper-brilliant Hannibal.

But screw comparisons. This show is too damn distinct for that.

For starters, True Detective breathes real life into its surroundings. There’s the geographical component — isolation, vegetation, and heat. There’s the cultural setting — its much-debated gender politics, hypocritical fundamentalism, and corruption of those in political power. There’s even the chronological setting — watch how the passage of time heals some wounds, grants perspective, and allows evil to grow stronger when left to its own devices.


As do ponytails.

Even by “good television” standards, these settings stand out. Most procedurals could basically be set anywhere — I’m a big fan of Fringe, which took absolutely no notice of the details of its surroundings in favor of anonymous warehouse-type locations. Ditto Hannibal, a show mostly about events that take place in ornate rooms and spare clinics. The long-form structure of television would seem a great opportunity to dig into a particular local scene, but watching True Detective made it abundantly clear that it’s not an opportunity most take.

I wonder if this mark of quality comes from the simple fact that show creator Nic Pizzelatto is actually from this area, and not by any appearance a typical “industry guy.” Quick research indicates an English background, which makes sense. His casual expertise with this place and its people recalls the way John Le Carre’s work effortlessly infuses his firsthand knowledge of British Intelligence into his spy novels. Just look at the little things like the types of houses people have, or the casual way men handle their firearms, or the specific mix of reverence and hatred reserved for the police. There’s something to be said for the value of pure experience.

Sadly, True Detective’s cosmetic/genre trappings seems to have inspired a lot of folks to, um… well, to miss the point of the thing. Since I saw it at a distance from the initial furor surrounding its airing, the elaborate, “Lost-esque” theories people were coming up with seem downright bizarre. Frankly, True Detective never presents itself as that kind of show. Rust secretly being the murderer? Give me a break. And that’s one of the saner ones.


If you read certain interviews with Pizzelatto, you get the sense that he’s a bit dismayed by the audience focus on hidden clues and mysteries. Most notably, he mentions (among other things) how lame it would be to string the audience along for seven episodes only to reveal that they’d been lied to the entire time.

You know… he’s kinda right. In a post-Sixth Sense, post-Lost entertainment landscape, we’ve become so inoculated to crazy reveals and late-hour twists that we don’t stop to think about how strange it is that we assume a show or movie is just lying to our face.

From the very first episode, it’s clear that this isn’t a show that’s hiding the answers. We quickly learn there was a falling out, that Rust’s tension with the police comes to a head, that Harrelson’s marriage doesn’t make it. We know they catch a killer, and that he’s the wrong guy. We know the show is much more interested in the men solving the case than the case itself. Theories can be fun, but it seems a shame that so much time was spent imagining stuff that never would have belonged in the show anyway.


Pictured: Actual fan of the show

I could, at some point, mention how brilliant the show is on just your basic technical levels. Direction is tight and stylish, soundscapes are moody without being generic, and the cast is fantastic from top to bottom. All this comes to a rather obvious head in the fourth episode, which had a much-discussed one-take raid that basically blew my mind for six minutes straight. Now would be a great time to really dig into the super-cool stylings of the show, but I’d rather talk about an issue some people had with the man at the center of that crazy shot: Rust.

Specifically, let’s talk about how some folks found disappointment in the conversion Rust undergoes in the final episode. Basically, I’m disappointed in their disappointment, as the sincere beauty of his final moments highlight just what makes this show so special.

For one thing, the show clearly does its homework here. Rust is damaged, sure, but he’s damaged because he once had something in his life so beautiful that he couldn’t understand the world that would take it away. His daughter’s death underlines a good many of his actions throughout the season, and it just makes sense for it to provide the engine for his ultimate catharsis.


Plus it’s just good drama to have your character ACTUALLY UNDERGO AN ARC.

Thing is, a guy like Rust isn’t a man who lacks hope. A lot of people make that mistake. The thing about the specific brand of nihilism he vocalizes is that it has to be the result of a core sense of idealism. As Joss Whedon so nicely put it, “Only someone who is truly romantic can be disappointed enough to be a cynic.” If Rust was purely a man without tether, he wouldn’t be deep undercover with that biker gang, he’d be one of them.

I’m 100% behind a show finding hope in the kinds of situations we see over the course of True Detective. Not every horror story needs to end like Se7en. Sure, the world just outright sucks a lot of the time. Sure, f-you nihilism is empowering, and even productive, but that attitude is just basically not sustainable. Even for just eight episodes, apparently.

That’s the true, final beauty of True Detective. It reminds us, with total sincerity, that no matter what evil deeds men may do, we should never stop looking for the pinprick of light.


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  1. Glad that you got to finally watch the show! It was fantastic!

    It was odd because my wife and I started watching it and loved it instantly, but a lot of the people we talked to about it, seemed either very dis-interested or just turned off by it. I’m not sure if it was the content of the show, or that it was only 8 episodes long or what but we told EVERYONE about it, and they all kind of ignored us.

    Then low and behold, the internet blows up about it and people talk about it months later after the show has come and gone and wouldn’t you know – those people are telling us how amazing the show is.

    All I can say to them is – I TOLD YOU SO!

    (awesome post David!)

    Best moments of the show, the robbing of the stash house, the last scene outside the hospital and the intro to the show.

  2. I think a lot of people may have been channeling The Usual Suspects with the expectation that they were being lied to. Rust kind of had this Verbal Kint thing going. Like he was coming up with the next lie each time his dragged on a cigarette or drank from his beer.
    The one question I have about the show is why were the two bodies put on display to be found by the police? The bad guy had plenty of bodies buried on his property. Why break the pattern which triggered the first and second investigations? Or did I just answer my own question?

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