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What's Behind the Puzzling Bum Rap TRUE DETECTIVE Has Gotten?

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by Seth Abramson
March 21, 2014 12:24 PM
2 Comments
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There's something about the recently concluded first season of the HBO program True Detective that's driven certain normally cogent television critics batty. Usually one can follow, at least generally, naysayers' objections to a program's narrative arc or episode-to-episode execution, but in the case of True Detective almost nothing the critics are saying adds up. The result is that a beautifully written and elegantly produced drama about existential despair on the Louisiana Bayou has become the latest pariah for hipsters and self-anointed cultural critics alike.

True Detective is a show with only three well-drawn characters--in fact only three characters the show has any interest in developing at all--and one of them is female, two male. Critics of the show conclude that True Detective had no interest in the feminine.

It is, too, a show that hints at a vast, murderous conspiracy of rich white men, but finally gives viewers the satisfaction of seeing only a single member of that ring brought to justice. In a television industry where the conventional thing to do would have been to ensure that all wrongdoers ever shown or hinted at on-screen were apprehended, True Detective takes the unusual tack of conceding that sometimes even the most dedicated detectives can only solve a small piece of the larger puzzle. It's a fact foreshadowed repeatedly in the show's first season via repeated reference to the cavernous blindspots even talented detectives must endure. Critics of the show opine in response--inexplicably--that True Detective wasn't, in fact, bucking a decades-long trend in the true crime genre, but merely not trying hard enough. In other words, a more conventional plot would have satisfied critics by convincing them, in a conventional way, that the show wanted more than anything to meet their expectations. Except that it didn't, so they howled.

True Detective is a program so long on abstract philosophical rumination that critics say they couldn't bear to hear a minute more of the existential conjectures of disgraced police detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey); those same critics warn potential new viewers of True Detective that the show is merely a standard police procedural--even though that genre is known to be (to put it charitably) a little light on anything approaching abstraction generally or philosophy specifically.

True Detective is a show that's been panned by some major media outlets--The New Yorker, most notably--even as everyone more or less agrees that the acting is great, the cinematography is great, the writing is great, and the pacing is sufficient to tie even the most skeptical viewer to their television set every week.

If all this sounds rather strange--as though True Detective is getting the sort of treatment reserved for cultural setpieces that somehow destroy our sense of ourselves, placing us immediately in a defensive stance--that's because the whole melodrama surrounding True Detective is indeed incredibly strange. And, too, it has an undercurrent of nastiness that's merely underlined by the above paradoxes. Maybe critics got sick of praising shows produced by HBO; maybe they resented the growing tendency (see House of Cards) for Hollywood film stars to take turns on the small screen; maybe they tire of the arrogant, self-aggrandizing digi-hipster buzz that seems to surround every new cable series with half a pulse; maybe decades of egregiously turgid Law & Order spinoffs have soured the media on anything that looks even vaguely like a police procedural.

Here's what we know: Watching your television is not an exercise in seeing how close a program can come to emulating your archetype of the genre you think you're watching. Nor is appreciating art merely a game of deduction in which the starting point is how you think that art should look, and the endpoint is your grave disappointment at what it actually turns out to be and (as importantly) want to be. If a television program features one man so traumatized by the loss of his two year-old daughter and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage that he no longer believes in love nor yearns for sex; if it features another man so self-conflicted about his own soul he ping-pongs blindly between a loving wife and psychologically immature mistresses without seeing any of them more clearly than he sees himself; if the villainous mob at the heart of the program feeds off the poisonous legacy of "good ol' boy" Southern cultural practices like "rural Mardi Gras"; if the milieu of the show's protagonists--the seedy criminal underbelly of impoverished coastal Louisiana--is one in which women are marginalized and most of the chief actors (that is to say, most of the appalling archetypes dotting the landscape) are male; if all these things are true, I probably won't recommend to friends and family that they watch such a program to find sterling depictions of complex feminine psyches. But that doesn't mean I won't recommend the show; it simply means that I'll judge (and recommend) the program on its own terms, adjudicating its value based upon the story the program wishes to tell and the fidelity to that purpose that it shows in telling it. I certainly won't insist that any one television program, in a nation with hundreds of them, be all things to all people.

Matthew McConaughey's Rustin Cohle is an iconic television figure. Neither a hero nor an anti-hero, he's a man whose belief in his own perseverance is so wispy he moves through every scene like a ghost. If you think you've seen Rustin Cohle on your television screen before, you probably weren't paying undue attention to the show's subtly eloquent dialogue, which sees McConaughey ruminating on such yawn-inducing, overplayed TV topics like how hypothetical beings inhabiting the fourth dimension would perceive the lifespans of two- and three-dimensional beings; whether consciousness generally and fatherhood and motherhood specifically are in fact the original, purge-proof sins of our species; whether love is merely a delusion of sentience subsumed beneath the broader fallacies of free will and linear time; you know, run-of-the-mill police procedural shit like that. If Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart is slightly more conventional a small-screen figure--a philandering, hard-drinking alpha male cop who becomes equally enraged at any woman he can't control and any man who mistreats a woman--he's also played to perfection by Harrelson, in fact so convincingly that when Hart's wife says that the foundational tragedy of her husband's life is that he has no idea who he is (despite seeming to play entirely to type), we believe her. It's a cutting critique of masculinity that those counting, instead, the number of lines of dialogue doled out to male and female actors in the series may have missed. In no uncertain terms, True Detective concludes that our nation's founding archetype for the male body and psyche is so hollow that the destruction it generates is merely terror and aggression predictably filling an existential vacuum. Critics of the show respond that it's a procession of buddy-cop tropes. I don't have any idea what show they were watching.

It's true that True Detective leaves some loose ends, and equally true that in the age of cable television programs so expensive to produce that one never knows if they'll have a second season, that's par for the course. Still, some of the loose ends the critics complain about seem paltry by comparison to, say, the trail of questions left behind by Lost, or Firefly, or even now long-forgotten near-classics like Rome. Sure, we never find out why Marty's daughter was drawing men and women having sex on sketchpads at her elementary school, but who cares, finally? We never found out the precise mechanism by which that prison rat killed himself in his cell; so? And it's unclear whether that cowardly parish Sheriff in fact goes on to seek revenge against Rust after the latter has credibly threatened him with execution and professional ruin if he does, but can't we just use our imagination to resolve that trifling canard? And while it's undoubtedly a much bigger deal that True Detective ultimately uncovers the key to only a few murders on the Bayou, rather than the hundreds it alludes to, for those taking the show on its own terms Marty's explanation in the series finale--that sometimes having good intentions and fortitude means doing whatever one can, not everything one conceives of--seems not just plausible but, based upon Hart's background and motivations, earned. Likewise, a brilliantly written final monologue by the philosophical pessimist Cohle (portrayed by critics as "merely" a nihilist, as that's a pejorative term most readers will understand) is perfectly consistent with his complicated personal ethos: one governed by deeply considered views on consciousness and time, not (as would be the case with the conventional nihilist) "meaning" and ethics. A key difference between Cohle and a workaday nihilist is that the latter doesn't believe in any of those pesky meta-realities Rust eerily obsesses over--a fact that makes Rust's gradual conversion to a sort of spirituality cleverly unsurprising rather than stupidly epiphanic.

No one will accuse True Detective of offering many groundbreaking roles for actresses--of the three women who get the most minutes on-screen, one is a housewife who roughly conforms to the archetypal spouse locked in a loveless, infidelity-riddled marriage; one is a courthouse steno who slums with Marty as she looks for a husband; and one is a former prostitute turned mentally ill cellphone store employee--but at some point it must be allowed that there will be programs, albeit thankfully not too many of them, in which the primary relationship considered by the script is between two men. I love Cormac McCarthy's The Road; I certainly wouldn't want every film, or even a notable fraction of them, to put two males in an existential wrestling match and see who loses and how. True Detective at least has the good grace to offer only the slightest relational arc between Rust and Marty; those who say the series' first season ends with the two as lifelong friends are confusing the empathy of co-survivors with genuine affection. If Rust and Marty seem likely to stay in touch after the final credits roll, that's because they have nothing else to do with themselves and too little direction to orient themselves otherwise. It's hardly a ringing endorsement of platonic love between men. Indeed, the more likely follow-through after the final shot of True Detective is that Rust kills himself shortly thereafter, and Marty continues on in the dreary and directionless life we saw him living when Rust rolled back into town to close out the Dora Lange case once and for all. Those who see resolution or reunion in the mere fact that Marty's children and ex-wife visit him as he lays half-dead in the hospital--or that Hart begins sobbing uncontrollably during their visit (quite obviously tears of abject misery, not joy)--are grasping at straws. There's no happy ending for Harrelson's Marty, nor does the show allude to one.

Nor, it appears, is there any happy ending for True Detective. Its detractors have resorted, now, to merely contending that Top of the Lake was a better program and got less attention. Okay; is this somehow proof positive that True Detective is unwatchable or (less grandly) undeserving of praise? Does the fact that The Wire is still far better than either of these two shows mean Top of the Lake is unwatchable too? Someday we'll find out what was behind the bum rap given to True Detective; or, alternately, we won't--and be left instead with The New Yorker claiming that one of the best-written programs of the last few years is in fact no more memorable dialogically than, if you can believe it, Family Matters. Steve Urkel used to go on and on about fourth-dimensional metaphysical overlords, didn't he?


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2 Comments

  • Mongoosecmr | April 8, 2014 3:19 AMReply

    Fantastic article. Most of the backlash I've seen seems to have come from either biased gender politics, as you noted, or people following the show for plot twists and being disappointed that it didn't end in the biggest mindf*ck imaginable. For all the hype and (possibly ironic) popularity to Rust's character there seemed to be few people who actually attempted to look closer at him.

    I really can't think of any show or piece of media in general thats gone from almost overpraised to underrated in as little time. Its a bizarre phenomenon, and I'm interested to see how time treats this season

  • Jennifer Cockburn | March 21, 2014 8:18 PMReply

    I saw Marty Hart as Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Rust Kohle as his knight of resignation. Ultimately Rust makes a leap of faith from moral man to absurd man. Perhaps Emily Nussbaum couldn't like the series because it's possible to see the titanically evil villain as a neo-pagan radical environmentalist.

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