Please don’t tell me that HBO’s “True Detective” is too slow. For some people, it no doubt is. On the other hand, I stare at the screen sometimes when I watch and murmur “wow.”
To me “slow” is a relative term. If you’re having a fascinating conversation with a beautiful woman over delicious drinks at a great restaurant, you couldn’t care less if your waiter is pokey getting pasta to your table. If, on the other hand, you’re at a table full of zooey kids crying, hitting each other, climbing walls and spilling water on everyone, the interval between the waiter serving the salad and the ravioli bolognese can’t possibly be short enough.
Put it another way: I’d rather watch a fly slowly make its way across Jack Elam’s magnificently ugly face in a Sergio Leone western than watch Michael Bay throw thunderously dippy CGI machines at you at maximum velocity and volume level while absolutely nothing is happening you could possibly care about.
So instead of talking about “True Detective’s” hauntingly leisurely tempo, let me tell you about a date you may remember: Sept. 22, 1999.
That’s the day “The West Wing” started on NBC. “The Sopranos” had begun in January of 1999 on HBO. By September of that year, some of us knew we were in a new mind-boggling era of American television.
By the time, “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” slowly built up watchers, adherents and ultimately raving, fanatic partisans, the idea that there was a new Golden Age of Television was, as they sometimes like to say, “out there” for anyone clear-eyed enough to see it.
I’m not claiming to you that “True Detective” is in the “West Wing”/”Sopranos” class but it’s not very far from it.
The show’s first four episodes have aired and the final four episodes begin this evening. I’ve seen this evening’s and next Sunday’s and the word “wow” crossed my lips. They’re dynamite – or rather the slow, moody fuse that burns toward the dynamite that will have exploded by four weeks from tonight when this story on “True Detective” ends its appointed eight-week run.
That is only part of what has critics raving wildly about “True Detective” everywhere they can – social media, antisocial media, you name it.
In this era, that too requires amplification. When you talk about “critics” as if they were some sort of unified aggregate, you’re out to lunch and with no cash or plastic to pay either.
What’s wrong with the websites Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic is that all the critical consensus in the world doesn’t necessarily make anything good, it just means a bunch of people sanctioned to do so like pointing in the same direction. They’ve been doing that for years – at movies, say. It’s Tocqueville’s toxic democratic malady, “Tyranny of the Majority. “Ben-Hur,” in another era, or TV’s “The Wire” in ours all got critical hosannas. That doesn’t mean all of us are going to agree. Personally, I wouldn’t sit through “Ben-Hur” again unless my 4-year-old grandson asked me to. And even then, I’d use all of my wiles to talk him out of it.
“True Detective” is different. In last Sunday’s episode, there was a wildly complex six-minute uninterrupted single take that is the sort of thing that causes film-savvy people of all sorts to scream excitedly at the screen and high-five each other everywhere they can. To which, frankly, “So what?” isn’t an entirely inapt response. Virtuosity aside, I thought the whole episode was trying too much to be like “The Wire” but I’ll be happy to agree that you’ve got to be at least at little tickled when a truly brilliant director wants to show off with genuinely virtuosic camera work.
With tonight’s “True Detective” we’re back to everything that’s so weirdly able to elicit that unequivocal whispered “wow.” Matthew McConaughey’s performance as nihilist Louisiana State cop “Rust” Cohle is like nothing else you’ve ever seen, not even quite like other McConaughey performances.
That’s why in the run up to the Oscars, McConaughey has about the best publicity an actor could possibly have in his hope to win for “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Another performance entirely is reminding everyone how brilliant he can be with great material.
“Rust” Cohle is a fellow who has to be performed by an actor who can actually carry off lines like this, by creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto: “Why should I live in history? I don’t want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved … Everything we’ve ever done or ever do we’re going to do over and over again.” And McConaughey does – completely.
In next week’s sex-charged episode, the partnership of McConaughey’s and Woody Harrelson’s characters comes to grief over temptation and marital infidelity.
And while all this is going on, Cohle is trying to get to the bottom of a string of serial killings that seems to get longer with every episode. The plot may be standard, then, in our time but not the riveting character studies of two deeply disturbing cops, played masterfully by two actors doing some of the greatest work of their acting lives, McConaughey and Harrelson.
To know how PROFOUNDLY exciting a show “True Detective” is, take a look sometime at Fox’s “Rake,” an adaptation of an Australian series about a disreputable lawyer written by the two guys who helped guide Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me.” In other words, it’s a mildly ribald testosterone comedy about a lawyer with big gambling debts, a well-indulged taste for inappropriate women and no car or home to call his own.
It’s fun to watch in the mode of the ancient, wonderful and tragically short-lived beauty “The Trials of O’Brien” with Peter Falk.
It’s enjoyable to watch. Greg Kinnear is the star and it’s often directed by major movie talent – Sam Raimi, for instance, director of “Spider-Man.” It’s not a tiny patch on “True Detective,” though.
I even love the fresh game plan of HBO’s series. It’s an anthology series which tells one long complex story a season, in this case all written by one writer (Pizzolotto) and directed by one director (Cary Joji Fukunaga, a huge talent and name to remember from now on; see his version of “Jane Eyre.”)
Writer and director do incredible things together – give you cogently narrated stories, for instance, counterpointed by scenes showing you that what happened was completely different. If “True Detective” moves slowly, it’s because you’re getting to know two wildly charismatic and troubled and mysterious Louisiana state cops in a way we haven’t quite gotten to know other TV characters before, not even on “The Wire,” “The Killing” and “Breaking Bad.”
I have strong suspicions about where Pizzolotto and Fukunaga are taking us for the finale but I’d be lying if I said I was sure.
You could do far worse than catch up on “True Detective” on HBO on demand. If you decide to start from scratch this evening, you’ll have a little trouble figuring out what came before but not so much that you can’t be pulled into one of the truly great current TV series beginning the second-half of its limited, eight-episode run.
Taking aim at Fallon: The reshuffling of the late night deck beginning at midnight Monday with Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is being answered by some of the most exciting late-night TV in a while (see my column Tuesday).
Most importantly, by far, Conan O’Brien has announced that he’ll have Mel Brooks on the Tuesday show at 11 p.m. to talk about his legendary years with the late Sid Caesar. If they’re both up to it, there could be classic television in the offing.
In the meantime, at 11 p.m. Monday, David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” gives us Steinberg’s interviews with no less than Bette Midler and Richard Belzer.
Make sure your DVR is in good repair. It’s going to be busy for Fallon’s first few weeks.