Tuesday, January 13, 2015

True Detective's Lingering Spell

True Detective is already filming its second season as I write this. It will air on HBO sometime in the summer. I am looking forward to the second season of this show, although I see a lot of wisdom in my wife’s view which is that it can’t possibly be as good as the first season.



The first season of True Detective had a lot going for it. Somehow the show creators, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukugawa, were able to cast two leads with incandescent chemistry and stage presence - Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. To have these talents wrangled together into the same concise project produced something that I haven’t seen since the Wire - a sincere and harrowing look at the underbelly of America. I was obsessed with this show, from pretty much the first maraca rattles of the opening song (Far from Any Road by the Handsome Family) to the final moments of the last episode, the drifting upwards into the infinite spill of cold distant stars.

I spend the better part of this year tracking down stories, novels, inspirations and influences on this show, attempting to figure out for myself what it was that so captured my imagination. Here and there I would be reminded that not everyone experience this show in quite the same way. Lots of people were disappointed by the ending, expecting, I presume that Rust and Marty would flip out of this dimension and have to gator wrestle a tentacled Yellow King on the shores of Lake Hali. Personally, I never thought this show was going to do much with the Chambers references and the Thomas Ligotti inspired monologues.

A lot of weight was put on this show, probably too much to clearly see what this show was and wasn’t. But really, it’s right there in the title - “True Detective.” This is a show derived from one of the most ephemeral and low-brow of literatures - the true crime paperback. The essential pulpiness and disposability of this art form is lifted up from the mire of obscurity, given an impressive frame by Fukugawa’s exquisite cinematagraphy, and credibility by HBO curation. But at the end of the day, True Detective was still pulp fiction.

And that’s where I run into trouble. I get that some reviewers didn’t like this show or wanted more from it. There are enormous plot-holes in the story, strange red-herrings that don’t serve much purposes in the grand scheme of things. So why did I like it so much? If I’m being honest, I’d say that this show cast a spell on me and found a way past my critical faculties to reach some visceral center of what I was looking for in a television show. The music, the weird fiction references, the characters and the macabre story all felt personally crafted to one specific target audience - me. Now, I fully recognize that plenty of other people also heard the strange dog-whistle of this show, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of it.

What I do have trouble figuring out is how people could mistake this show for something that it clearly is not. This was not ever going to be an epic by Tarkovsky or some lost Hitchcock thriller. Just because it doesn’t live up to those high ideals, though, doesn’t mean it's worthless. Art doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It may have raised expectations a little high, but at the end of the day it was what it said it was. A story. About detectives. Solving a crime.

Nevertheless I find myself in the awkward position of trying to defend something that I can’t fully understand my reasons for enjoying. I have my suspicions though.

The first reason I like this show was it was truly weird. True Detective effectively illustrated what is strange and alienating about living in this country. I’ve only been to Louisiana a couple of times but I felt it captured my experience with the slow sinking dread of the delta. I felt this show was an expertly constructed excursion into pure dread. Again, all of that window dressing that Andrew Romanon of the Daily Mail referred to. Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker mentioned being unmoved by such literary games, perceiving an inner hollowness to the project that she saw bore out by the ending. I agree with the observation but disagree that a “central hollowness,” is necessarily a defect. The central insistence of weird fiction, of horror fiction in general, is the essential meaningless of reality. That we all exist, briefly, on the skim of reality, that the rituals and social constructions within which we life our lives are ultimately nothing more than crude incantations used to ward off uncomfortable truths. That is both the ultimate purpose behind both Rust Cole’s monologues and Marty Hart’s philandering. To show that the world they inhabit is fading away, “like a memory of a town.” Several reviewers have pointed out the similarity of True Detective’s murder mystery to the plot of a fourth season X-Files show “Home,” where inbred mutants survive in a murderous enclave outside of a peaceful Pennsylvania town. This is the same vestige of an older, weirder more isolated America True Detective describes in its 1995 flashbacks. Before the Internet and the Cold War and even World War II, this was a country of small communities and large secrets. With every image of Louisiana farm land slipping into the Gulf of Mexico, the show makes its point that something vanished from this country, never to return to be replaced by computers, video surveillance, and metafiction. I enjoyed this look back into the past of this country, that there was a great hidden evil in this country that seeps into every room, person and story, an essential hollowness. This is not something that I enjoy in every book I read or every television I watch, but when I’m in a particular mood, a show like this represented a perfect distillation of that dread as I can imagine.

The second reason I liked this show was its unflinching look at the cost of mystical belief, of the old mystical mode of American thinking. Ultimately the cult that Rusty Cole is attempting to track down, and the religion that he spend time criticizing are one and the same. Some people survive by pulling blinders over their eyes so they can survive safe from a full awareness of their hypocrisy. Marty represents this to a certain sense. That he is both hired to be a protector of the weak while simultaneously leveraging his power versus the weak is instructive. Men (and women) who deceive themselves will deceive others and vice versa. True Detective wove into the central insight of many works this year that we are living world where a few cults of mystical thinking are causing unbelievable suffering and bloodshed on the basis of this irrational superstition. It doesn’t matter what religion you are holding up as a greater understanding, Cole’s point is that it is all just fairy tale. His viewpoint, although insufferable, is largely correct within the context of the story. There is a better, more objective way of viewing the world, one that is not as prone to self-defeating self-deceptions.

I admit that approach to the show does fall down a little bit in the last episode.

I enjoyed the last episode. The principal point of the overall story, two guys tracking down a killer, was resolved. I found myself unconvinced, however, that Rust Cole in the final moments would become such an optimist. It didn’t bother me overly but it seemed like being stabbed was a poor motivation to overturn his anti-natalist viewpoint for some affirmation of the power of starlight to defeat the universe of darkness above them. I also grow annoyed at the red-herrings and the loss of opportunity that some plot threads represent. One that particularly bothers me is the scene of Audrey, Marty’s goth daughter, acting out scenes that parallel the disturbing crimes he is investigating. To me I never took this to be anything more than a symptom of Marty’s poisoning of his family, the one thing that he felt was important. But maybe that’s part of the problem, the central failing of this show, its narrow focus.

Not a lot of time was spent developing the female characters of this show with quite the same diligence as Marty and Rust. I believe, having read Pizzolatto’s other work, and watched Fukugawa’s other movies, that they are not ignorant of the lop-sided gender politics of their story. However, it is clear that they made a judgement to focus on their male protagonists. Where this story could have been much broader and more powerful, in fully investing in Maggie’s character or by looking into the lives of some of Childress’ victims. It’s that narrowness of perspective that ultimately prevents it from reaching the upper pantheon of television classics.

Within the constraints of its own story, I still feel as though this show was very entertaining and powerful. It wasn’t the best television series I saw this year, it was just the one that had the biggest impact on me.
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