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Edge of Darkness: The proto-True Detective

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Thirsting for more existential detective drama following True Detective? Then try Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness miniseries.

True Detective is changing the very nature of what television can be. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga have thrown down the gauntlet to all cable dramas to come with their bravura, cinematic, genre-busting miniseries. While watching the show, it began to remind me of another miniseries which pushed the limitations of what television could do. It too is a detective story, a classic example of the genre that simultaneously turns it inside out. It is the BBC’s 1985 masterpiece, Edge of Darkness.

Both True Detective and Edge of Darkness view humanity as a destructive force quickly spiralling down the drain

Edge of Darkness finds Detective Ron Craven (Bob Peck) investigating the murder of his daughter Emma (Joanne Walley). What he uncovers is a chilling world of industrial espionage within the nuclear industry of Thatcher’s Britain. Craven teams up with CIA agent Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker) to expose the truth and to seek justice for Emma’s death. Like True Detective, Edge of Darkness is an atmospheric thriller featuring two mismatched protagonists, who journey into a dark, supernaturally-tinged underworld. They both have an overbearing feeling of grim inevitability and also of something other – literally a force of nature that lurks in the shadows. But most of all, both shows bring a touch of the cinema to the television form.

While True Detective is a thriller that is dropping its toes in the horror genre and Edge of Darkness leans more toward science fiction, they share the same existential world view. The latter was written by Troy Kennedy-Martin (writer of The Italian Job) and directed by Martin Campbell (later responsible for the rejuvenation of the James Bond franchise with Goldeneye and Casino Royale) and is an intriguing political thriller, but woven throughout its fabric is an apocalyptic vision of the future that feels as frightening as it is inevitable. Both shows view humanity with a jaundiced eye; humanity is a destructive force quickly spiralling down the drain. We just need to open our eyes and accept our fate, maybe even embrace it.

edge of darkness joe don baker

The characters that best personify these themes are Rust Cohle in True Detective (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Jedburgh in Edge of Darkness. Each character lives outside society while simultaneously being a part of it, as employees of the police and the US government respectively. The horrors of the world have left an indelible mark on these men, drawing them toward a determination that what we call humanity is nothing but a pathetic game. But where Cohle deals with these horrors by self-destructing, Jedburgh decides he not only wants to keep playing, he wants to be the one to set the board.

Each series is playing around with similar themes of our relationship with the world and our role as its ultimate adversary

There has been a dark, supernatural thread running through the current episodes of True Detective, manifest in the strange structures made from sticks found during the investigation. There is a sense of ever-present evil which permeates everything in the show, but an evil that feels old as if rising from the earth itself. Edge of Darkness also plays with these ideas, imagining the very spirit of the Earth, Gaia, as a real living creature. After her death, Emma appears to Craven as an apparition in Edge of Darkness. At first this appears to be the product of his grief, but it becomes clear that she is a spirit, an aspect of Gaia herself guiding Craven toward his justice and telling him that, “The planet will protect itself. If man is the enemy, it will destroy him.” Each series is playing around with similar themes of our relationship with the world and our role as its ultimate adversary.

true detective matthew mcconaughey

These themes and threads can also be found in each show’s obsession with an inspirational text. True Detective has references to the book The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, while the song Time of the Preacher by Willie Nelson gets recast in Edge of Darkness as a chilling prophecy of apocalyptic doom. When the last few seconds tick by on the final episode of True Detective and fans shudder at the thought of not being able to fill their evening with a dark, existential and slightly supernatural police drama, Edge of Darkness should be the next port of call.

Both True Detective and Edge of Darkness are remarkable examples of how cinema can change TV

Both True Detective and Edge of Darkness offer a watershed moment in cinematic television, both operating within the structure of a miniseries while exploding it at the same time. They demonstrate more complexity and thematic resonance than most longer form television shows out there, and they do it in less than ten episodes a piece. It just goes to show what a couple of feature film directors are able to do when given the chance to play in a different format. These two shows are remarkable examples of how cinema can change television.

 

Featured image: BBC

Inset images: BBC; HBO

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