A murdered female from a depressed region is found in a desolate setting, stripped naked, with cryptic markings on her flesh and animal appendages gruesomely affixed to her corpse. The discovery soon reveals a pattern of vanished young women, one that the authorities have seemingly done their best to ignore, if not actively cover up. The mystery of the women's fates twists and turns through hours of riveting, groundbreaking television, featuring dazzling acting performances, eye-popping cinematography, and disorienting chronological acrobatics. As the story winds to its shattering conclusion the world becomes increasingly upended: The law is corrupt, good is found only in the damaged, and those who claim to speak for God speak only for themselves, if not something worse.
Ta-da! You've just fallen for a bait-and-switch, a classic cliché of the genre of hack criticism. I'm actually not referring to HBO's “True Detective,” which ended its hugely successful first season Sunday night. I'm referring to the “Red Riding” trilogy, a five-hour serial killer procedural that aired on England's Channel 4 in 2009 and enjoyed a brief theatrical release stateside in 2010. If you haven't seen it — and considering how infrequently it's come up in discussions of “True Detective,” not many have — then you really should, because almost everything that's great about Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga's whodunit, “Red Riding” did better, and did first.
“Red Riding” is told in three 100-minute episodes, each based in a separate year — 1974, 1980 and 1983 — although in this story nothing is as linear as it seems, time being no exception. The setting is Yorkshire, England's largest county, where people are disappearing for reasons that no one seems able or particularly eager to understand. Yorkshire's historical division into “Ridings” gives the series its name, although traces of the children's fairy tale float in and out as well. The cast boasts a murderers' row of top-flight U.K. actors doing their best Northern accents, many of whom will be instantly recognizable to American audiences (Lady Mary and Carson! Ned Stark! Spider-Man!).
“Red Riding” is loosely based on actual events. The middle installment takes place during the search for real-life serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, the infamous “Yorkshire Ripper,” and provides the central historical anchor for the trilogy. The Ripper murders were among the most infamous crimes in 20th-century England, and for a long while in Yorkshire they came to define the region. “Red Riding” takes root in that panicked and blood-soaked moment, then extends and elaborates it, posing the terrifying question: But what if it were even worse?
“Red Riding” is nestled at the intersection of historical fiction and speculative fiction, but a more descriptive category might be something like conspiracy fiction. Conspiracy theories seek to impose order onto the cruelty of a random world, but in doing so they often make that cruelty all the more horrifying. It's bad enough simply knowing that awful things happen; believing they happen because of some shadowy power structure, perpetually beyond the reach of accountability, is almost unbearable. Both “True Detective” and “Red Riding” exist in such a world — many thrillers do — but “Red Riding” more fully explores its implications, exploding its paranoia into a cultural indictment. It's Arthur Conan Doyle meets Alistair Crowley, filtered through the righteous indignation of the Clash: There's something about England.
As such “Red Riding” creates a far more vivid sense of place and time in its five hours than “True Detective” does in its eight. “True Detective's” trappings of Southern gothic vacillated between frustratingly vague and overly on-the-nose, and aside from the two leads the rest of the characters often felt like bold-faced narrative devices or indistinct scenery (still no closure on the nubile ex-prostitute who speaks in porn movie dialogue — Season 2?). “Red Riding” paints both its region and its history with vivid color and rigorous specificity. There are evocative period splashes — as a journalist sifts through microfilm from the late 1960s, headlines are dominated by the Kray twins' trial. Radios crackle with updates from the Irish hunger strikes, when they're not tuned to the nostalgic strains of Northern soul.
And of course that distinctly British obsession with social class runs beneath all of it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Yorkshire was ground zero for Thatcherist union-busting, the region's mining communities ravaged by a government wielding right-wing economic ideology as a cudgel against the working class. “Red Riding” never explicitly addresses this, but its world is one of corruption and avarice, where the gluttonous feast on inequity. “To the North, where we do what we want,” is a common proclamation, made only by those with the worst intentions. Sean Bean's performance as John Dawson, a construction magnate prone to “personal weaknesses,” is a tour de force of violent, swaggering evil. “[Dawson] takes what he wants,” whispers someone who would know. He's the big bad wolf, or so we think.
“Red Riding” never pauses to gaze at itself and it sure as hell never winks. It might be the darkest five hours in the history of television; I can't think of anything else that comes close. The body count is considerable but its violence resides more in life than death, in the offhanded beatings by sadistic cops, the physical and psychological torture of interrogation rooms, the moral rot that gnaws at everything and everyone. The North is a place for the terrified or the terrifying, and anyone in between becomes collateral damage. Like “True Detective” the murdered bodies are those of women, children, the downtrodden and doomed do-gooders, but the survivors are bereft of extemporaneous philosophizing or supernatural intuition: Nobody knows anything until they know too much, and then it's much too late.