True Detective which was screened in week 8 is a great example of how a crime drama can be done. After many years of watching the same formula of a crime being committed at the start of the episode and after analysing the evidence and striking a deal with a reluctant key witness the perpetrator is caught and the case is closed.
Network shows such as Criminal Minds and CSI can become very predictable for audience that have seen this formula play out every week. That is why shows like True Detective can be so refreshing and it is to no one’s surprise that it is produced by HBO. In Christopher Anderson’s article “Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television”, he argues that HBO can be seen, in some respects as the lead in turning American Television into a cultivated expectation (Edgerton, et al 2008, p.23). It was also HBO who produced The Sopranos which was the first cable show to ever win an Emmy. Anderson furthers this argument by stating that HBO gives Television an “aesthetic disposition”, which is usually revered for historical and contemporary fine art (Edgerton, et al 2008, p.25). Criminal Minds and CSI usually have twenty or more episodes in a season while True Detective only has eight. Despite the lack of episodes it still manages to tell a much more steadily are steadily unfolding mystery narrative since it’s not episodic as our two protagonist Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) chased after the same killer for the entire series.
What set this show apart from most crime dramas is the aforementioned actors in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as they are major Hollywood actors and provide True Detective with some star power. Their performances captivated audiences as each portrayed a different broken characters and how they contrasted in the 1995 and 2012. Audiences will then see how these characters evolved from what they were to what they are in 2012. The case and their partnership are seen “through the refining lens if the past, revealing thoughts and events (the detectives) have long kept hidden from the world, and sometimes themselves” (Gardner, 2014). The story progresses through the use of flashbacks as Foster Hirsch says that these flashbacks that are “non-chronological order” and deal with a “fractured time sequence” resemble classic noire films. (Hirsch 2008, p.72). By being set in two different timelines it can be hard to keep the two narratives to not reveal too much to the audience since the main narrative occurs in 1995, a full seventeen years before.
What was also interesting was how they differentiated between the two timelines through the use of mise-en-scene. Both main characters look vastly different from their former selves but the less obvious techniques that were utilised such as the colour correction subconsciously made the audience link the time line to a particular tone. The 2012 timeline was light with harsh, artificial lighting, while the 1995 one had more natural lighting with a sepia tone overlay. This was a subtle way to inform the audience about the timeline of the scene through the use of colour and a person’s ingrained reaction to the sepia tone. The use of space also helped distinguish the two timelines as they 2012 scenes were kept indoors and in restricted spaces while the very first shot in the 1995 timeline was a wide establishing shot showing the grand fields of Louisiana as Rust and Marty drive a seemingly never ending road. In saying this, the two are a stuck in a tight space (the car) and appearing uncomfortable with each other’s presence. True Detective breaks the trope of having the partnership where the characters are good friends, with two characters that have a very different outlook on life and contrasting ideals which causes a friction between the two as the narrative progresses.
This show is an example of why people say that this is the golden age of television as True Detective tries to break tropes and clichés to tell a story about good vs. evil and the grief/loss that the individuals often encounter in this line of work.
Edgerton, G. R, and Jeffrey P. J, 2008, “Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television” in The Essential HBO Reader, University Press of Kentucky, pp.20-27.
Gardner, C, 2014, “Television Case History”, The Lacent.com, viewed 21 October 2015 <http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140673614605055.pdf>.
Hirsch, F, 2008, “The Crazy Mirror” in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Da Capo Press, pp.68-75.