TV review: sleuthing out the revolutionary “True Detective”

In our popular culture, we deem something “revolutionary” just about every other month. If revolutions were this frequent, we would not even have a stable status quo to revolt against, for God’s sake.

Therefore, when The Daily Beast’s entertainment critic posited that HBO’s new series “True Detective” “has the potential, in its own quiet way, to be”¦revolutionary,” I reacted, in my own quiet way, by rolling my eyes.

Having seen the first two episodes of said show, I can safely conclude that both I was pretty much wrong.

The story itself is not at all revolutionary. “True Detective” is a murder mystery centered on two detectives: the straight arrow (Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart) and the loose cannon (Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle). This being an HBO show, the murder is especially grisly and the loose cannon especially loose. The shots of brutalized bodies and barren Southern landscapes, combined with Cohle’s embittered, bleakly philosophical monologues, bring to mind the work of writer Cormac McCarthy.

Like most of McCarthy’s work, “True Detective” uses a pulpy story and a limited cast of characters to stage an epic battle between faith and fatalism in a world gone mad. A few self-indulgent side trips notwithstanding, “True Detective” plays like a really good adaptation of the best McCarthy novel McCarthy never wrote. This is due largely to McConaughey and Harrelson, who turn their scenes together into weird, world-weary duets. It is also due to director Cori Joji Fukunaga, whose cool precision and eye for a telling detail make his visual style a satisfying combination of David Fincher and Jeff Nichols.

Yet ultimately, it is not the content of the show that makes it somewhat revolutionary; it is the form. Whereas most TV shows have fifteen or twenty-two episodes, the first season of “True Detective” has only eight. After these eight episodes end, the show will reset, beginning season two with a story that is located in the same universe but centered on an entirely different set of characters.

The benefits of this “anthology” approach are clear. For one thing, due to the relatively low time commitment, it encourages big-name Hollywood stars to do TV without insisting that they up and leave their movie careers.

It also provides a unique way of creating fictional universes of a size and scope rarely seen on television. An anthology like this one, one that is centered on unconnected characters inhabiting a single place, offers TV the opportunity to do something like what Faulkner did with his fictional Yoknapatawpha County in literature or what Sufjan Stevens did with his beloved Illinois in song.

What is more, “True Detective” does this while expanding opportunities for A-list artists to get into television.  I am not entirely sure that makes it revolutionary. It certainly does not make it a game changer on the level of “The Sopranos.” But you know what? Based on the transformative potential this show offers, I am not totally opposed to using the “r” word here. Regardless of whether or not it starts a revolution, it certainly earns this critic’s recommendation.