A south­ern gothic crime drama takes us into a mes­meris­ing, evil world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

THE un­set­tling new HBO se­ries

a show car­ried ir­re­sistibly by a heavy loan of atavis­tic dread, con­tin­ued to in­trigue and at­tract new fol­low­ers even as we ap­proached the fi­nal episode last week. And it will con­tinue to do so, as its eight episodes are con­tin­u­ally re­played on Fox­tel’s Show­case, now the home of HBO. No, the se­ries is not par­tic­u­larly fact­based, de­spite the ti­tle, which seems to de­lib­er­ately hark back to the 1930s era of the de­tec­tive pulp mag­a­zines, where vic­tims were hunted and tor­tured by sadis­tic vil­lains full of gothic men­ace and tit­il­lat­ing villainy.

Even so, there has been plenty of both in this mes­meris­ing drama as its cen­tral char­ac­ters — two tor­mented Louisiana cops — prowl a ter­ri­tory that looks dystopian: a cor­rupted, de­grad­ing Eden that Wash­ing­ton for­got. It’s a land­scape of de­serted power plants, des­o­late burned-out churches, highly armed drug-run­ning bik­ers and iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties crawl­ing with re­li­gious zealotry; a place where al­most noth­ing or no one is ex­actly who or what they seem to be.

And is, in many ways — it en­com­passes many gen­res — a con­tem­po­rary western, its in­ves­ti­ga­tors spir­i­tual an­ces­tors of the type of gun­fight­ers who set­tled the fron­tier but who now wan­der this ex­hausted place look­ing for re­demp­tion. Writ­ten and cre­ated by Nic Piz­zo­latto (

and di­rected by Cary Fuku­naga ( it fol­lows the way the lives of these two homi­cide cops col­lide and en­tan­gle dur­ing a 17year hunt for a killer, from the orig­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a bizarre mur­der in 1995 to the re­open­ing of the case nearly 20 years later.

The drama be­gins in the present when the de­tec­tives, no longer ac­tive, give state­ments about the long-ago mur­der of a pros­ti­tute; then moves back and forth in some­times dizzy­ing cy­cles. Killing) Eyre),


True De­tec­tive

True The Jane

stars Woody Har­rel­son good ol’ boy Martin Hart, a man of un­rav­el­ling demons, and Os­car-win­ner Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle, who views the world ni­hilis­ti­cally as noth­ing but pain and suf­fer­ing. There’s also Michelle Mon­aghan (

as Mag­gie, Hart’s wife; Kevin Dunn as Ma­jor Que­sada, the su­per­vis­ing offi-


De­tec­tive pos­si­ble III) Veep)


Mis­sion: Im- ( cer in 1995; and Tory Kit­tles ( and Michael Potts ( as de­tec­tives Pa­pa­nia and Gil­bough, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors prob­ing Hart and Cohle.

The se­ries turned into a be­guil­ing amal­gam of high­brow fic­tion, thriller, philo­soph­i­cal primer, cut­ting so­cial com­men­tary and a fine piece of po­lice pro­ce­dural. At times it’s eerily rem­i­nis­cent of the nov­els of James Lee Burke, whose darkly moral­is­tic evo­ca­tions of crime and pun­ish­ment in Louisiana also probe the shift­ing bound­aries be­tween the pow­er­ful and power-

Sons of An­ar­chy) The Wire) less, past and present and, es­pe­cially, good and evil in mod­ern Amer­ica. Like Burke’s deep south, Piz­zo­latto’s state of Louisiana is a pro­foundly deca­dent world, its dis­so­lu­tion mea­sured by the in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble link be­tween re­spectabil­ity and morally re­pug­nant crime.

Piz­zo­latto and Fuku­naga, who col­lab­o­rated on all the episodes, have in­ter­twined sev­eral emo­tion­ally com­plex nar­ra­tives that leap be­tween the years, but their over­all story drops hints to murky past events be­fore we see their clar­i­fi­ca­tion. The enig­matic Cohle, known as the Tax­man — un­like the small notepad of other of­fi­cers, he car­ries a big ledger — dom­i­nates the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, sus­cep­ti­ble to hal­lu­ci­na­tions and po­et­i­cal ex­is­ten­tial­ist mus­ings and likely to ex­plode at any mo­ment.

The se­ries may have started with an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the two cops into the seem­ingly oc­cult mur­der of a young woman called Dora Lange but soon they op­er­ate with­out badges in the at­tempt to seek jus­tice for more than one vic­tim. As we reached the con­clu­sion there seemed to be a se­cret al­liance be­tween the rich and re­spectable and the crim­i­nal un­der­world and, af­ter a ter­ri­ble fall­ing out, Cohle and Hart ar­rived at an ac­com­mo­da­tion to crack it. As Cohle said at the be­gin­ning of this saga: “This kind of thing doesn’t hap­pen in a vac­uum.’’ The True De­tec­tive is two in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Cohle also got to deliver one of the most bru­tal lines de­liv­ered on a TV cop show: “The news­pa­pers are go­ing to be tough on you, and prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the op­por­tu­nity, you should kill yourself.” It might have been de­served too in the case of a fe­male three-time child killer but more than any­thing it demon­strated Cohle’s com­plete lack of faith in the in­sti­tu­tions of law to pun­ish or pro­tect her.

Cohle is un­like the clas­si­cal fic­tional de­tec­tive for whom evil is an ab­nor­mal dis­rup­tion of an es­sen­tially benev­o­lent so­cial or­der caused by a spe­cific set of crim­i­nal mo­tives — he has learned, ob­vi­ously bit­terly, that evil is en­demic to the run­ning of things. There’s some­thing al­most feu­dal about him, his ac­tion-ori­ented code of hon­our tran­scend­ing the ex­ist­ing so­cial or­der, but his dogged pur­suit of the Yel­low King case brings emo­tional dam­age even as it seeks to make things right.

If you have fol­lowed the show closely you prob­a­bly know about its con­nec­tion to

a hor­ror story collection by Robert W. Cham­bers, with Piz­zo­latto’s script ref­er­enc­ing not only the Yel­low King but the cursed fic­tional city of Car­cosa (plucked by Cham­bers from the sem­i­nal work of Am­brose Bierce). This collection of sto­ries in­flu­enced writ­ers from HP Love­craft and Ray­mond Chan­dler to Robert Hein­lein, Grant Mor­ri­son, Neil Gaiman and Ge­orge RR Martin. Piz­zo­latto haunts us not only with quo­ta­tions in Dora Lange’s diary but

in Yel­low,

The King recurring black star sym­bols ap­pear­ing as tat­toos and doo­dles, and talk of omi­nous black spi­rals and this un­known place called Car­cosa.

If you chase around the in­ter­net you go a lit­tle crazy as you at­tempt to de­ci­pher the count­less, al­most Tal­mu­dic read­ings of on­to­log­i­cal com­plex­ity ex­plain­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween

its an­guished char­ac­ters and the sym­bols drawn from so-called “weird fic­tion”.

Piz­zo­latto is less high­brow, cit­ing in the show’s con­cep­tion 70s Bri­tish cop show and “the three Davids” — Chase (

Milch ( Si­mon ( — along with Michael Mann ( says Faulkner is there as an in­flu­ence, too, as well as Dashiell Ham­mett’s in which against the lurid back­ground of a sav­age and cor­rupt so­ci­ety the hard-boiled de­tec­tive stands out as a beacon of dis­in­ter­ested moral­ity.

Oth­ers see the se­ries as set in the tra­di­tion of south­ern gothic ex­em­pli­fied by Thomas Har­ris’s a term Flan­nery O’Con­nor said “con­jures up an im­age of gothic mon­strosi­ties and the idea of a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ev­ery­thing de­formed and grotesque’’.

There is what Piz­zo­latto calls “a sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment of real world hor­ror” in the se­ries but it’s re­ally about what he calls “a locked room — where ev­ery­one’s life ex­ists in its own in­ten­sity”, and he says in­side each locked room there just may be sev­eral houses. And nicely enig­matic too, Piz­zo­latto, who with Fuku­naga main­tains a run­ning com­men­tary af­ter each episode on the HBO web­site. They’re as en­ter­tain­ing and as im­pen­e­tra­ble as Rust Cohle. But it’s clear they have con­cocted a nar­ra­tive that is it­self a house full of many dif­fer­ent rooms.

And they are the only ones with the keys. Piz­zo­latto wrote all eight episodes of the first sea­son by him­self, locked, he says, in a con­verted garage, work­ing on the script of more than 500 pages for 2½ to three months.

“The walls were cov­ered with Post-it notes filled with tiny hand­writ­ing,” he says. “My of­fice looked like some­thing out of

Fuku­naga di­rected ev­ery episode, where nor­mally other di­rec­tors would have been used — em­ployed 25 di­rec­tors for its 62 episodes. Their idea was to com­bine the best of in­de­pen­dent cin­ema with tele­vi­sion, a kind of eight-hour movie.

How did it end? You won’t get it from me as Show­case will be re­peat­ing the en­tire se­ries again soon.

All Piz­zo­latto said is that while he wants to take us to a kind of heart of dark­ness, an ex­is­ten­tial one, “it is just as con­cerned with un­der­stand­ing how people wait out the dark­ness with strength and hope and love’’. But if you’re des­per­ate to have a taste, the chan­nel is re­peat­ing the fi­nal four episodes tonight.

True De­tec­tive, Sweeney, So­pra­nos), Wire)

Break­ing Bad

True De­tec­tive,


The Si­lence of the Lambs,

Red The The The Heat).


A Beau­ti­ful Mind.”

Satur­day, 9.30pm, Show­case


Main pic­ture, Matthew McConaughey, right, with Charles Hal­ford in True De­tec­tive; and with Woody Har­rel­son, above

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