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One New Miniseries Is a Spoof; Another – No Kidding – Is Superb
January 9, 2014  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments

Two new miniseries arrive this week, which have almost nothing in common but their noteworthiness. One’s a multi-part comic satire, the other an excellent new police drama…

The one premiering first, Thursday’s new IFC miniseries (10 p.m. ET), is The Spoils of Babylon, which comes from some of Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die website folks, and arrives as a highly committed high-concept satire, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse – except that its target, instead of sexy and violent drive-in movie fare, is the lavish, sprawling miniseries form that dominated TV in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The conceit goes so far as to invent a false auteur, Eric Jonrosh, who is presiding over the long-delayed TV premiere of his neglected, formerly unseen miniseries epic, originally envisioned and cut at 22 hours. The IFC version is in half-hour segments, and clocks in at three hours total, spread over several weeks. Jonrosh is played by Ferrell, who’s hilarious, playing a sort of beached-whale, late-career version of Orson Welles. His intros alone are worth tuning in to see.

And then there’s the rest: Intentionally ill-crafted miniature sets, unconvincing green-screen effects, overblown music, saturated colors, and a narrative that starts in the 1930s and covers decades of fortunes and loves gained and lost. And, always, the costumes and hair styles, switched from scene to scene just for the fun of it.

And it is fun, especially with such stars as Tim Robbins and Kristen Wiig (as father and daughter), Tobey Maguire (as the adopted son with a crush on his sister), and, later in the narrative, Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment and Michael Sheen. TV viewers who sat through the original Thorn Birds and the like should get maximum enjoyment out of this spoof, but it’s light enough, and weird enough, to please even the uninitiated.

Starting Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, True Detective launches as a combination miniseries and series. Like American Horror Story on FX, which submits itself for Emmys in the miniseries category, it tells a self-contained, single-season story – but like a regular TV series, returns the next season to tell more stories. The difference here is that they’re with new characters, a new premise, and, for the most part, new actors.

The stars of this first eight-part season of True Detective are Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, who have already announced their intention to depart the series after their limited story arc is over. But don’t miss this while they’re here, because both of them give spectacular, and complicated and brave, performances.

Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a Louisiana detective. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a lawman, and former narcotics undercover cop, from Texas who is reassigned to work with Hart in 1995, when the narrative of True Detective begins. Within weeks, though they’ve yet to form anything resembling a comfortable partnership, they catch a brutal murder case – hinting at seemingly satanic rituals and other perversities – that the duo soon suspects may be the work of a previously undetected serial killer.

They start sniffing around formerly closed cold cases to look for similarities, a trail they hope will lead them to the killer. Meanwhile, they keep fighting and bonding, bickering and debating, in a series of arguments that make True Detective seem like a sort of anti-buddy comedy. Sometimes it’s no less funny, but both these characters, in addition to caustic senses of humor, are deeply flawed, seriously wounded, and intensely complicated.

So is the structure of the miniseries, which treats this 1995 murder story as its own type of cold case. In 2012, another set of detectives is doing the same thing Cohle and Hart did back in 1995: trying to solve a current murder by looking closely at previous investigations. Except this time, a new murder with similarities to the previous case has the new detectives suspecting not only a possible connection, but suspecting one or both of the detectives as well.

And in time, another timeline, from 2002, will be introduced as well, as the troubled relationship of Cohle and Hart continues to reveal itself.

Writer Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote every script for this first season of True Detective, has delivered the smartest and best HBO drama series since The Wire. Like The Wire, it demands, and rewards, patience from its viewers, and presumes enough intelligence and focus to follow what is a fairly demanding storytelling structure. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga – who, like Pizzolatto, performed his duties on all eight hours – makes it all fairly clear, and hauntingly photographed. And he’s an actor’s director, it’s clear, because McConaughey and Harrelson are fabulous here. In each installment (I’ve seen only the first four, but plenty to render a rave verdict), the two actors surprise you with both intensity and subtlety – sometimes alone, and especially together.

Supporting players are strong, too, especially Michelle Monaghan as Hart’s wife. And while the central murder mystery is compelling, what drives this first season of True Detective is the mystery of the two cops at its center: who they are, what molded them, what changed them, and what, over the years, they did and didn’t do. There’s no telling what Season 2 of True Detective will bring – but Season 1 is a self-contained TV triumph.


For my review of True Detective on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, go to the Fresh Air website.

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Gil O'Brien
Seems fair to credit Garth Marenghi's Darkplace as the origin of Spoils.
Jan 10, 2014   |  Reply
Will be waiting breathlessly for this to appear in digital format.
Jan 9, 2014   |  Reply
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