True Detective. Image: HBO.
True Detective. Image: HBO.

‘Overrated’. ‘Nothing special’. ‘Straightforward police procedural’. ‘Not as good as Breaking Bad‘. ‘Pretty good, but Hannibal did it first’. ‘The performances save it’.

Beware these words. If you hear them, then you’re talking to someone who fundamentally did not get True Detective.

It’s certainly possible to enjoy True Detective as a horror-influenced detective show, the same way you can enjoy The Wire as a police procedural or The Sopranos as an epic mob movie or The Wolf of Wall Street as a black comedy. That’s fine. They function very well on this level, and it’s a level that deserves appreciation. However, if you do that and then dismiss True Detective, the problem is squarely with you, the viewer, who missed the point.

What is True Detective about? On the surface, it’s a dark detective drama focusing on a series of ritualistic sex murders in Louisiana in both 1995 and 2012, alternating between the two. But really, like everything on HBO, it’s about the structure of power; old, ingrained oppressions, and the eternal battle at the core of human nature. It’s the most literate series ever committed to TV, not just for its King in Yellow references but for the real philosophical texture woven into its fabric (no surprise, since creator and sole writer Nic Pizzolatto began as a novelist). It is, to use an overused word, deep, and dismissing it because of its surface trappings is like wading a few feet into the sea and proclaiming that the Mariana Trench isn’t anything I’m writing this within a week of watching the eighth and final episode of the first season (an anthology format is planned, with each season featuring a different cast and plot), and the show is somehow still growing in my estimation. Television hasn’t had anything like this in several years. Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and similar have given us some great TV to fill the void since the unassailable twin giants of The Wire and The Sopranos concluded, but there’s no doubt in my mind that True Detective is: 1) the best television show of the decade; 2) the best first season of any television show ever; 3) regardless of medium, a modern classic of immense cultural value; and 4) categorically not overrated. It’s underrated.

Now, I could rave for hours about the direction, or the unbearable tension of certain sequences in episodes four, five, and eight, or the magnificently, tangibly oppressive confluence of music and imagery that defines True Detective’s singular aesthetic, or the two fantastic performances which give life to two of TV’s greatest characters, or just the endlessly layered genius of the writing. Instead, I think it’s more important to prepare the uninitiated viewer, to help them get the most out of True Detective, so here goes:

  • True Detective is a detective show, but it’s not a mystery show. At its heart, the story is relatively straightforward and honest, and all the stronger for avoiding the flashy twists and tricks the genre likes to pull. Wild speculation will get you nowhere.
  • True Detective is really about society, about the innumerable components and wheels and complexities of its chimeric constitution, and its titanic cultural and historical inertia. We aren’t even bricks in the wall; we’re individual motes of clay.
  • True Detective recognises that no answer is complete or absolute, that victory is partial and arduous, that defeat is easy and total, and that the world’s fabric inevitably tapers off into uncountable loose ends.
  • And, finally, True Detective is an unqualified masterpiece.

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