Thursday, January 16, 2014

Time Killer: HBO's True Detective

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective.

Knowledgeable TV watchers inked True Detective in as the first cultural event of the year as soon as news of it began to filter out last spring. In an industry where it’s unusual for even ambitious series to have just a few people at the helm insuring unity of personal vision and style, the series was conceived by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto, who also wrote all eight episodes, all of which were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. (Fukunaga previously made the fine 2011 feature adaptation of Jane Eyre.) The main characters, a mismatched pair of police detectives working a homicide case in Louisiana in the mid-80s, are played by a couple of movie stars: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

Even now that the barriers that used to separate movie and TV careers have eroded, it’s unusual to see a couple of big names as successful and adventurous as these two agreeing to headline a weekly TV show, and McConaughey and Harrelson won’t be sweating out the wait to see if the series gets renewed; like Ryan Murphy’s conceptually audacious (albeit deranged) American Horror Story, this is an anthology series, designed to tell one story over the course of a season, then return to tell a different one, with a different set of characters, in the same basic genre. This ought to be a good way to attract talented people who are reluctant to tie themselves to a regular TV schedule (although Murphy has made a fetish of bringing back certain actors, from season to season, in different roles); it’s also a smart way to get past what’s always been the great creative trap of American series TV, which has demanded that creators keep drawing their stories out past the point of dramatic tension and common sense for as long as it remains profitable to keep their shows on the air, instead of thinking in terms of stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything about True Detective sounds great in theory. And to a degree that I don’t remember seeing on American TV before, that’s just what it is: a show that’s absolutely bursting with pride at how great it is in theory.

Woody Harrelson in True Detective.
Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a cop with the kind of domestic life where a certain amount of tension and dissatisfaction has come to feel, to him at least, like basic stability; he’s the sort of man who sleeps around on his wife (Michelle Monaghan) but thinks of himself as both “normal” and morally upstanding because he keeps things properly compartmentalized. Watching a preacher (Shea Whigham) working a crowd, he allows that he may not believe in religion himself, but insists that it’s important that it be there for the common rabble, because without the threat of hellfire hanging over their heads, society would degenerate into “a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery.”

McConaughey plays the edgier number, Rust Cohle, a transplanted Texan who looks at the same tent show Hart sees and can’t restrain himself from sharing the theory that “religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain.” Cohle has a million nuggets like that, all of which he uses to fuel his unremittingly bleak view of life. The man’s a walking podcast, yammering away despite the active irritation of his partner and the general indifference of the rest of the world to his line of psychedelic dorm-room bull session patter. “I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist,” he says in the first episode. “Means I’m bad at parties.” That’s as down-to-earth as he ever gets. More typically, Rust is the kind of guy who seems to have a crucifix prominently displayed in his room just so that he can trick his partner into raising to subject of religion. This gives Rust the chance to explain that he only uses the cross as “a form of meditation… I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.” He goes on: “I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law,” adding that, to his eternal regret, he himself lacks “the constitution for suicide.” These are soliloquies; Hart’s major contributions to their dialogues are interjections along the lines of “I wouldn’t go ‘round spoutin’ that shit if I were you,” and “I am begging you to shut the fuck up.”

Matthew McConaughey in True Detective.
The performances themselves are beyond reproach. McConaughey, who has spent the last two or three years establishing himself as maybe the best American actor under fifty in movies, confirms his stature here just by not turning into a joke. He can’t make his character (who, in addition to his other quirks, has a neurological condition that triggers his taste and other sensors in response to seeing certain colors) halfway believable, but from scene to scene, he’s compellingly intense and self-contained. It’s easy to see what attracted him to the part: the action cuts back and forth between the still-youngish Hart and Cohle working their case and their responses, in separate interviews, with a couple of detectives conducting some sort of follow-up fifteen years later. In the time in between, Cohle has pulled even further inside himself and become an alcoholic burnout, so Conaughey gets to enjoy the actors’ fantasy of basking in his clean-shaven beauty in the flashback scenes and also having a fling playing a debauched wastrel with a porn-star mustache in the scenes set during the present. Harrelson’s role isn’t nearly as flashy or as much of a challenge, in either the past or the present, but he embodies the unimaginative, self-serving hypocrite Hart without betraying any condescension towards him. (Before McConaughey broke out of the rut of undistinguished rom-coms that used to be his career and embarked on his own personal renaissance, Harrelson would have likely been the front-runner to play the drawling, drugged-up malcontent Cohle.)

 Everything about True Detective is well done, and the show is gripping, but the grip slackens as it drones on and on about the human condition and the darkness of the soul, at the expense of snapping the story into focus. It begins with the discovery of a dead body—trussed up, left outside, and decorated with antlers, an image that’s a little too close to the flamboyantly ghoulish crime-scene imagery in the NBC series Hannibal, which stars Mads Mikkelsen as a pre-incarceration Hannibal Lector. But after a while, the talk and the scenes of personal self-destructiveness don’t seem to have any connection to the case, and after just a little longer, they practically crowd it out entirely; the detectives themselves seem less and less invested in it.

True Detective is an impressive-looking hollow shell of a show. The acclaim it’s received might not be so galling if it weren’t for the cold shoulder many critics have given to some other recent crime series' that are worthier additions to the ranks of contemporary noir fiction—in particular, the AMC series The Killing, which in its third season delivered a flawed and sometimes grueling but mostly mesmerizing tragic vision of a society that, through the death penalty and the exploitation of children, has institutionalized and rewarded callousness and indifference to the suffering of the helpless. It also had some of the best performances seen on TV last year, including Joel Kinnaman as a troubled detective trying, and failing, to shift from passionate recklessness to a safer career path, Peter Sarsgaard as a Death Row inmate who didn’t commit the murder he was convicted of but who doesn’t consider himself an innocent man, and Bex Taylor-Klaus as a homeless girl who maintains a rock-hard fa├žade but is really just a lovesick kid who desperately needs a friend. Unfortunately, TV viewers can be a very unforgiving lot, and because the show’s first two seasons were widely perceived as a letdown, fewer watched the series than made knee jerk wisecracks about how inexplicable it was that it was still on the air. (A similar fate befell the wild third season of Showtime’s Homeland.) True Detective is so self-consciously awed by the existential possibilities of crime fiction, and so flimsy as a narrative work, that it doesn’t need critical support. It’s reviewing itself.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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