Source: The New Yorker
COOL STORY, BRO
The shallow deep talk of “True Detective”
Though the show has movie-star charisma, it reeks of macho nonsense.
Judged purely on style, HBO’s “True Detective” is a great show. Every week, it offers up shiver-inducing cable intoxicants, from an over-the-top action sequence so liquid it rivals a Scorsese flick to piquant scenes of rural degradation, filmed on location in Louisiana, a setting that has become a bit of an HBO specialty. (“Treme” and “True Blood” are also set there.)
Like many critics, I was initially charmed by the show’s anthology structure (eight episodes and out; next season a fresh story) and its witty chronology, which chops and dices a serial-killer investigation, using two time lines. In the nineteen-nineties, two detectives, Marty Hart and Rust Cohle (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey), hunt down a fetishistic murderer, the sort of artsy bastard who tattoos his female victims, then accessorizes them with antlers and scatters cultish tchotchkes at the crime scene. In the contemporary time line, these ex-partners are questioned by two other cops, who suspect that the murders have begun again. If you share my weakness for shows that shuffle time or have tense interrogations—like the late, great “Homicide” or the better seasons of “Damages”—you might be interested to see these methods combined. The modern interviews become a voice-over, which is layered over flashbacks, and the contrast between words and images reveals that our narrators have been cherry-picking details and, at crucial junctures, flat-out lying. So far, so complex.
On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.
This aspect of “True Detective” (which is written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga) will be gratingly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a new cable drama get acclaimed as “a dark masterpiece”: the slack-jawed teen prostitutes; the strippers gyrating in the background of police work; the flashes of nudity from the designated put-upon wifey character; and much more nudity from the occasional cameo hussy, like Marty’s mistress, whose rack bounces merrily through Episode 2. Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice bouncy rack. And if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.
To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, “True Detective” has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object—the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney. And everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers. “True Detective” has some tangy dialogue (“You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”) and it can whip up an ominous atmosphere, rippling with hints of psychedelia, but these strengths finally dissipate, because it’s so solipsistically focussed on the phony duet.
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Meanwhile, Marty’s wife, Maggie—played by Michelle Monaghan, she is the only prominent female character on the show—is an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides. Stand her next to any other betrayed wife on television—Mellie, on “Scandal”; or Alicia, on “The Good Wife”; or Cersei, on “Game of Thrones”; or even Claire, on “House of Cards”—and Maggie’s an outline, too. Last week, Maggie finally got her own episode, in which she is interrogated by the cops. She lies to them, with noir composure, as the visuals reveal a predictable twist: Maggie had revenge sex with Rust. That sex is filmed as gasp-worthy, though it lasts thirty seconds. We see Monaghan’s butt, plus the thrusting cheeks of McConaughey. Yet the betrayal has no weight, since the love triangle is missing a side. An earlier sex scene is even more absurd, and features still another slice of strange: a lusty, anal-sex-offering, sext-happy ex-hooker. She seduces Marty with her own philosophical sweet nothings (“There is nothing wrong with the way he made us”), and, since she’s a gorgeous unknown, we get to see her ride Harrelson like a bronco, as ceramic angels and devil dolls look on from the dresser.
I’m certain that, if you’re a fan of the series, this analysis irritates you. It’s no fun to be a killjoy, particularly when people are yelling “Best show ever”; it’s the kind of debate that tends to turn both sides into scolds, each accusing the other of being prudes or suckers. A few months ago, a similar debate erupted about Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a film that inspired its advocates to rage that those who didn’t “get it” just needed to get laid. There were more nuanced arguments out there, though: in the Times, A. O. Scott argued that, while the film did a fine job sending up the corruption of the grifter Jordan Belfort, there was little distinction, visually, between Belfort’s misogyny and the film’s own display. Cool girl that I am, I didn’t entirely agree: like “True Detective,” “Wolf” unfolds in flashback, through voice-over, but its outrageous images bend and ripple with Belfort’s mania. With the exception of a few shots—like one of a stewardess, whose assault is treated as a joke in a way that made me twitch—the nudity, however nasty, makes sense.
On “True Detective,” however, we’re not watching the distorted testimony of an addict, punctured by flashes of accidental self-revelation. The scenes we see are supposed to be what really happened. And when a mystery show is about disposable female bodies, and the women in it are eye candy, it’s a drag. Whatever the length of the show’s much admired tracking shot (six minutes, uncut!), it feels less hardboiled than softheaded. Which might be O.K. if “True Detective” were dumb fun, but, good God, it’s not: it’s got so much gravitas it could run for President.
It’s possible that my crankiness derives from having watched so many recent, better crime series, telling similar stories, in far more original ways. Most notable were Jane Campion’s soaring “Top of the Lake,” on Sundance, and Allan Cubitt’s nightmare-inducing BBC series “The Fall.” In “Top of the Lake,” Campion jolts the viewer with actual taboo nudity: she films the saggy bodies of middle-aged women, members of a feminist encampment. Then she stitches this subplot, in which she satirizes the cult of self-help victimhood, onto a small-town mystery about sex crimes against teen-age girls, who are filmed with comparative discretion. A moody, pastoral twist on the rape-and-murder genre, Campion’s mini-series torqued viewer expectations, exploring provocative themes about the way that communities agree to treat these crimes as if they were bad dreams. “True Detective”’s hinted-at mystery seems strikingly similar. The difference is that, while “Top of the Lake” is about survivors, “True Detective” is about witnesses. The acts themselves are mere symbols of the universe’s unspeakable horror.
“The Fall” (which is available on Netflix) has even more conventional nudity than “True Detective.” It, too, tells a story about a team of detectives hunting for a rapist-murderer obsessed with symbolism. It features pervy stalker shots, along with sick-making imagery of female corpses, in bondage, photographed as keepsakes. Some critics called the show “misogynistic torture porn”: by turning viewers on, they point out, it takes a rapist’s-eye view. But this imagery has a sharp purpose. The show reveals the murderer immediately, forcing us to see the world through his eyes. Then, episode by episode, it tears that identification apart. Just like Rust Cohle, “The Fall”’s rapist has an elaborate pseudo-intellectual lingo, full of Nietzsche quotes and talk of primal impulses. But an icy female cop, played by Gillian Anderson, sees through him—and, in the finale, she shreds his pretensions with one smart speech. Anderson aside, “The Fall” overflows with complex female characters, and not merely the killer’s victims but their families, the murderer’s wife, his daughter, and his mistress. Beautiful as “The Fall” looks, it’s harder to watch than “True Detective,” because there is a soul inside each body we ogle. When women suffer, their pain isn’t purely decorative.
“True Detective” isn’t over, of course: like any mystery, it can’t be fully judged before the finale—it might yet complete that mystical time loop Rust keeps ranting about. There are hints of the supernatural, with endless references to the “Yellow King” and the “Lost City of Carcosa”: maybe the show will reveal that it was Cthulhu all along, in the library, with the candlestick. But for now I’m an unbeliever. Bring me some unpretentious pulp, like Cinemax’s “Banshee,” or an intelligent thriller, like FX’s “The Americans,” which is beginning its second season later this month, and actually does have fresh things to say about sex, sin, and the existential slipperiness of human identity. Or, to quote Nietzsche: “Is life not a hundred times too short for us—to bore ourselves?”