Late to the party: ‘True Detective’ an odd, teasing thriller

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I don’t do a lot of binge-watching of TV anymore. A few years ago, every summer was a festival of re-watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on the VHS tapes I had made during the previous season. A few other shows were thrown in, but we watched “Buffy” religiously in those days.

In the meantime, life got busier – a child will do that, even in the summer – and binge-watching was mostly limited to trying to catch up on the three episodes of “Fargo” that we missed before the season finale.

Recently, my son has discovered the joys of “Parks and Recreation,” watching the most recent season through On Demand and then watching the first season on DVD. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the series and I might write about that sometime.

More recently, my wife and I decided to try to catch up on a couple of series that we missed. We’ve now purchased, but have not unwrapped, the first season of “Breaking Bad” on DVD. It was a show, like “The Shield,” that I just didn’t make time for as it unfolded each week but I didn’t want to jump into mid-stream. We tried that with “24” and ended up determinedly watching live what was universally acclaimed as the worst season.

So in the past few days we’ve binge-watched “True Detective,” which is a series that we couldn’t see because we don’t have HBO and probably couldn’t have kept up with what with devoting our live-watching time last winter to “The Walking Dead,” “Justified” and a few network series.

So that’s a roundabout way of recounting how I’m just now seeing “True Detective.”

I heard so much about the series when it was airing but managed to avoid hearing how it ended, so that was a bonus for catching up later. Also it’s just eight episodes!

After having seen it, I can say I understand what all the buzz was about. In a couple of ways.

“True Detective,” while very satisfying to watch over the space of a couple of days, no doubt really lent itself to live-watching each week. In this age of Twitter, viewers could revel in each week’s twists and turns. Not to mention the HBO-standard nudity. The plot worked on an episodic basis but flowed pretty well – even with a few time shifts – one episode after another.

And the show’s teasing flirtation with the supernatural – and many references to scarred giants, monsters, demons and dark rituals – fueled speculation that what was starting out as a straight police procedural was turning into something else.

That wasn’t really the case, at least not in that sense. But “True Detective” definitely transcended the typical procedural’s limitations.

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if you don’t already know, the series switches back and forth between 2012 and 1995, as two investigators (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) interview two former Louisiana state police detectives, Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).

Cohle, intellectual, anti-social and prone to alienating others, and Hart, publicly amiable but a womanizer with an explosive temper, “catch” a life-changing case when they’re assigned to investigate the body of a young woman found in a remote field. The woman, with antlers attached to her head, her body twisted into a submissive, praying posture and decorated with symbols, is plainly the victim of a ritualistic killer.

As the investigation unfolds, Cohle becomes more and more convinced that the woman was the victim of a serial killer. But where are the other bodies?

As the two probe the case, they become increasingly self-destructive. Cohle deep-sixes his career with his attitude toward higher-ups, including powerful and untouchable figures he thinks might be linked to the killer, and Hart threatens to drink and screw his way out of his marriage (Michelle Monaghan in a role that has more bite and substance than some critics of the series would have us think).

The series’ eight episodes are compelling and engrossing, never more so than the climactic hour and, halfway through the show’s run, an amazing single-take tracking shot as Cohle eludes both bikers and gang members in a botched drug raid on a housing project.

Cohle and Hart are characters who at times seem irredeemable but as metaphysical-speaking Cohle notes at least keep the really bad guys from society’s door.

“True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto (aided by director Cary Joji Fukunaga) kept their story short and to the point and left me wanting more. A second season is planned, although Pizzolatto says ti will focus on other characters and another setting.

With any luck, I’ll catch up with it too.

Random observations:

I really thought the ending would be much more dire for our heroes, namely that one of the two would die. I didn’t expect such optimism.

The setting for the climactic encounter with the killer reminded me uncomfortably of the “Home” episode of “The X-Files.” The feeling of queasiness and dread was palpable.

The hairstyles of the leads, reflecting the passage of nearly two decades, were pretty good.

Does every HBO show have at least one nude/sex scene per episode? Somehow I don’t remember Tony Soprano getting laid as much as Woody Harrelson.

It’s starting to realize that one of Harrelson’s nubile conquests was Alexandra Daddario, the female lead from the “Percy Jackson” movies. The actress, 28, has matured. Ahem.

So was there really a point to all the references to “The Yellow King” and old pulp fiction stories?

 

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