So, True Detective. Word on the street is that it recently made its return to Hobo, and almost no one involved in making the first season helped to create the second, but the new cast is led by Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, and Rachel McAdams, so nobody’s complaining. As we’ve seen from stunners like Total Recall (2012 version), The Watch, and The Notebook, these three are well beyond reproach and light up literally everything in which she stars. If writer Nic Pizzolatto was able to pull together a compelling, self-sufficient story in the short year after True Detective blew up with audiences and critics, Hobo will surely have a winner on their hands.
There are certainly a lot of things to admire about the original season of True Detective, the foremost one being that its creator had a vision for an 8-episode, stand-alone story and stuck with that vision despite the outstanding financial allure posed by various plot-driven dramas that drag on forever with no sense of direction or ultimate resolution. Both structurally and compositionally on screen, True Detective is kind of a rebuttal to the cheap-looking, cookie cutter murder mystery, and the presence of unexpected struggles and arcs for each of the main detectives is easy is to appreciate when most serials sincerely avoid making dramatic changes to characters whom audiences already love like their real-life friends. I don’t watch much TV, but a prime counter-example to Pizzolatto’s method would be the pilot season of Fox’s 24, which has either no character development or the shallowest kind conceivable and progresses merely by forcing superhuman Jack Bauer into one high-stakes predicament after another. Or observe Once Upon A Time, which blissfully wastes hours upon hours of our life meandering in forests with people who seem like they’re going to permanently change for the better or worse but inevitably regress into their old ways at the end of the subplot so that nobody has won, everything is back to normal, and the producers can keep shoveling new Disney characters into the universe.
We probably make too much fun of Time given that it’s a largely irrelevant, relatively family-friendly mashup show, but there’s such a multitude of things it does wrong that True Detective does right it only seems proper to compare and contrast them. For instance, I like that True Detective uses real locations in Louisiana – swamplands, fields, neighborhoods – whereas a less ambitious show like Time stages long stretches of nothingness in obviously fake forest sets or, worse, shoots actors against a green screen and ineptly attempts to fill in the world afterwards. The broad, grassy landscapes combined with careful framing, lighting, and film techniques makes the drama much more realistic and emotionally involving than a network show where the director and D.P. just opt to do the bare minimum and call it a wrap. In fact, director Cary Fukunaga put so much effort into making each scene memorable that one could pull pretty much any clip from the internet and use it as an illustration of how conscious camerawork, editing, etc. can emphasize the mood the script is trying to portray. Like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, the show is downright bleak and chilling at times, from the discovery of a cult murder victim stripped and posed as a “paraphilic love map” in a fog-drenched meadow, to the freaky, otherworldly shot of a masked “monster” in the third episode, to one of the most suspenseful and unnerving chases I can remember seeing in any visual medium.
I like that True Detective prioritizes outstanding talent and credibility over appearance in its casting, possibly excepting the multiple women Woody Harrelson beds because he’s tired of his wife, in which case the hiring of superficial, less respected but “sexy” actresses arguably helps us understand Harrelson’s position. Speaking of sex, the show has its fair share of boobs, though the more salacious scenes are relatively restrained for a Hobo original program. I’d wager there’s around four minutes of graphic fake sex in the 450-minute season, and while I can’t affirm that showing it on camera greatly alters the way we look at either Marty Hart or Rust, Harrelson and McConaughey both do a good job of making you feel uncomfortable and “disgusted” by their actions. You hear that? Let the record show that True Detective is Disgusting and Misogynistic and has a lot of F-bombs I didn’t even notice.
Despite its female characters coming straight out of the medieval age – and I’m talking pre-Roe v. Wade sexism here –, I liked that True Detective gave a morally unambiguous, weighty representation of adultery and the monumental pain it inflicts on people’s lives, as opposed to immature, “progressive” tripe like Once Upon a Time which tries to justify it as fun and necessary and true to the unfaithful person’s heart (“I can’t live a lie by pretending to care for you anymore”). In one of the police interview scenes, Marty remarks something vague and deflective to the effect of “having to take whatever relief I can get, being away from the family so much of the time”, which reveals both his utter shame in outing himself as a sinner and his proud instinct to view himself as a helpless victim of circumstances, rather than a spiritually weak and fallible man who refuses to govern his impulses.
Come to think of it, there’s not much I didn’t like about True Detective. The main characters are excellently developed and deeply flawed, the score and soundtrack selections gritty and fitting of the story’s somber tone (especially The Angry River and Young Men Dead), and the writing makes genuine efforts to spur viewers towards philosophical reflection, which is more than I can say of most books and movies released today. The show is widely known for deviating into long car ride conversations between Rust and Marty which do little to advance the murder mystery plotline but over which we acquire a deep comprehension of each detective’s mental habit and moral or amoral code. It’s kind of like Boyhood!, but much better written because only McConaughey sounds as though he’s reciting pre-written postulates about life, the universe, and the everything. Lord knows we could use more TV shows like Boyhood that focus on rich and believable stereotypes without getting bogged down in pseudo-scientific exposition, battle planning, evil monologues, you know, plot stuff.
McConaughey’s misanthropic stiffness and penchant for pessimistic lecturing are simultaneously True Detective’s strongest and lamest elements. Rust Cohle is a kind of dispensing machine of philosophical conceits he personally correlates with “realism”, a nihilistic worldview holding among other things that humanity’s rationality is a mistake of evolution, everybody is a nobody, and the noblest thing we can do as a species is quit reproducing and walk hand in hand into extinction. “It means I’m bad at parties,” he says. “Let me tell you, you ain’t great outside of parties either,” retorts his partner. Indeed.
The problem with True Detective’s intellectual banter is that it never rises to real argumentation or smoothly integrates with the narrative; it’s just there for interested viewers to think about, never artistically meshing with the plot or cinematic landscape. Whereas stories like The Matrix, The Truman Show, Life of Pi, and Prometheus (I didn’t say “good stories”) make definite, allegorical statements about God, free will, and human insignificance through the worlds and scenarios imagined by their authors, True Detective doesn’t attempt to prove or substantiate any belief. Nic Pizzolato just throws a bunch of clunky, lofty-sounding sentiments at the audience and hopes that something sticks. The many loony dialogues about darkness and the light, hope and cynicism, time running in a circle, etc. etc. are simply that, dialogues, reflecting no explicit or internal developments in the story. In fact, the more I think about the ideas communicated in True Detective, the more I’m convinced that the show and its fanatics think they’re a whole lot smarter than they actually are. When you take away the hype and watch the show in isolation, it’s abundantly clear that True Detective doesn’t ever argue anything, only poses theories we’re free to welcome or reject depending on our preexistent feelings.
I get the impression we’re not supposed to wholly agree with Rust or Marty, the former because he has a miraculous vision at the very end which turns him into a believer that “the light [in the night sky] is winning” – whatever that means –, the latter because he’s consistently portrayed as blindly optimistic, hypocritical, and logically inferior to Cohle. Marty’s identity as a Christian plays a much smaller part than his partner’s identity as a freethinking whatever-he-is. To the best of my memory, we never see him doing anything religious or defending his faith very sincerely, which leaves me befuddled as to why Pizzolato would bother labeling him a Christian in the first place. Maybe he thought the buddy cop dynamic would be more intriguing if each was a philosophical foil to the other. In retrospect, the cynic in me thinks that Marty’s only a Christian to show us that Christians are Hypocrites and sinners too… which is actually fundamental to the Gospel of the Bible, but who cares? I’m sure True Detective is just too intelligent for my puny, religion-dulled brain to understand. After all, Rust does give a pointed, scathing speech explaining how religion is scientifically proven to retard your critical thinking, and how could I doubt him given how crazy the loudmouthed evangelist minister and his overweight, easily manipulated sheeple sound?
I don’t even want to get into the moronic child molestation/porn subplot that randomly pops up in the later episodes. All of a sudden I felt like I was watching a silly Newsroom or True Blood kind of show that plays upon all the dumbest stereotypes cultivated about Catholics. Look, here’s a religious authority figure who funds an evil private school system free of governmental regulation and works in the proximity of children! What kind of dirt do you suppose he’s hiding? I just couldn’t imagine such systemic abuse and cover-ups happening at a publicly funded grade school.
Suffice it to say that True Detective is a true achievement in cinematography, acting, and direction that’s thrilling, unsettling, and any which way moving so long as you don’t think about how it’s masquerading as something much deeper than it truly is. It is so far, by far the most visually captivating and only HBO show I’ve pilfered off a friend who had the DVD, but to quote the stupid Christian, “I just want them to stop saying odd s***.”