After having laid down the foundations for how we might break down the elements of a story via my inaugural PoP Theory piece, I thought that analysing the excellent first season of the HBO series True Detective would provide us with a solid discussion of said elements.

What it’s all about …

The premise is straight-forward enough – two former detectives viz. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are questioned by the police about a bizarre ritual murder, the duo supposedly solved many years ago. As Hart and Cohle reveal details on what happened in the past, we the audience realise that the investigation is in fact far from solved.

Equal partners …

Usually, a story has only one main character. This main character has a want, takes action to get the want, encounters challenges in that pursuit and drives the story forward. However, in this case, we have two protagonists i.e. Hart and Coule that are equally important as far as the story is concerned.

This is a deliberate choice by the writers, which allows the relationship between the two men to provide drama, conflict, contrast, connection and ultimately, resolution. It is this relationship that defines the story and gives it a vitality and resonance, that is unique, visceral and memorable.

A simple plot …

Despite the storyline suggesting the involvement of a satanic cult and a conspiracy regarding disturbing child sacrifices, the actual plot that unfolds in the course of the series is really quite simple. Basically, the detectives investigate the case and believe they have solved the murders. However, subsequently, Cohle comes across evidence that suggests that they got it all wrong before and together, Hart and Coule find and confront the real killer in an explosive climax. That’s it!

The proof is in the pudding …

The reason why True Detective Season 1 succeeds as a story is down to writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto’s commitment to the idea that the plot should always serve (and be true to) the characters. Thus, the characters remain consistent throughout the series – there are no uncharacteristic moments for Cohle or Hart, simply to shoehorn a clever plot twist or the like.

Even in the midst of the existential angst that Cohle is wont to spout – to Hart’s constant annoyance – the thematic thrust of decay and destruction that visits the inhabitants of True Detective’s widescreen wastelands never overwhelms the laser focus zeroed in on Cohle and Hart.

Thus, even the tone and the stylistic decisions made by director Cary Joji Fukunaga, dovetail perfectly with presenting the protagonists front and centre, from the (often) unreliable narration provided by Cohle and Hart in the first half of the series as the pair are interviewed by the police to the emotional bonding of the resolution that outstrips the violently visceral denouement of the season finale in its sheer dramatic expression.

Take a bow …

Considering the importance the series put on its protagonists, it was vital that the actors chosen to play Hart and Cohle would be able to deliver on Pizzolatto’s brilliant characterisations. It’s fair to say that Harrelson and McConaughey embodied everything Pizzolatto envisioned on paper and more!

McConaughey was originally considered for Hart’s role but asked to play Cohle instead and his performance is near perfect. Harrelson is an amazing foil to McConaughey, displaying an inherent conflict within his soul that ranges from rational decency to unreasonable violence.

Mention also must be made of Michelle Monaghan’s crucial portrayal of Maggie Hart, and an important player in how the Hart-Cohle partnership falls and rises again. Maggie Hart acts as a catalyst for Hart’s own character arc, which reaches an emotional peak in that post-climatic moment in the hospital.

In the final analysis …

With its first season, True Detective, set a high bar for the seasons that followed that has never been matched, even though Season 3 – with the magnificent Mahershala Ali in the lead – tried its best and the less said about the risible Season 2, the better.

What I really liked about Season 1 at the end of the day is that while it never bothered to address the wider conspiracy beyond the Yellow King (Errol Childress), that sense of unfinished business fed into the fatalistic themes of the series. Sure, not all the loose ends were tied up neatly but that’s probably the whole point of the exercise.

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