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A Southerner's Defense of Bayou Gothic 'True Detective'

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! February 27, 2014 at 3:56PM

Emily Nussbaum may be my favorite critic working today -- her New Yorker column is my North Star of trusted opinion in the televisual wilderness. But she gets "True Detective" wrong, wrong, wrong.
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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Nic Pizzolatto's "True Detective"
HBO Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Nic Pizzolatto's "True Detective"

Emily Nussbaum may be my favorite critic working today -- her New Yorker column is my North Star of trusted opinion in the televisual wilderness. But she gets "True Detective" wrong, wrong, wrong. (SPOILERS BELOW if you are not up to date with the series.)

HBO's twisted police procedural, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, has assumed a toehold in the zeitgeist, and Nussbaum's is the most trenchant among proliferating critiques. Yet supporters and dissenters alike are battling over terrain -- the role of women, and especially women's bodies -- that circumscribes the debate from the start. "True Detective" appears shallow only when you view it through a single lens.

That's not to say the series' depiction of women is not fair game. In the gape-mouthed gauntlet of traumatized girls through which Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) passes to pursue his line of questioning, or the undressed curves of Det. Marty Hart's (Woody Harrelson) extramarital paramours, "True Detective" assumes a leering gaze out of sync with its troublesome subject matter.

But on the whole, Nussbaum's claim that "every live woman they meet is paper-thin" is overstated. What are we to make of the proprietress of a "hillbilly bunny ranch," who counters Hart's hypocritical, holier-than-thou condemnation with defiance? Or of Marty's wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who revenge-fucks Rust and reports back to her husband, knowing full well he'll fly into a rage? If there is, to the series' discredit, a queasily anonymous quality to the women whose deaths prompt Hart and Cohle's investigation, the live women of "True Detective" are in fact anything but mere backdrops for the action: they talk back.

It's worth remembering that the lion's share of "True Detective" occurs in rural south Louisiana in 1995, not Lena Dunham's New York. Underemphasized in lamentations about the lack of diversity on "Girls" is the notion that Hannah Horvath's refreshing brand of young womanhood is class-based and site-specific. The same could be said of "True Detective": the sum total of the (admittedly small) female roles -- women who work in exurban strip malls or chemical processing plants, pray at revival meetings or hang out at bars, wear prim dresses or punk-inflected jewelry -- reflects their respective struggles against constraints of time, space, and circumstance. The tough madam's response to Hart may not be as satisfying to our ears as Amy Jellicoe's revolutionary aphorisms, but it's nothing if not honest. "Girls walk this Earth all the time screwin' for free," she says. "Why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can't stand the thought? I'll tell you. It's 'cause suddenly you don't own it the way you thought you did."

This article is related to: TV Reviews, HBO, Genres, Drama, Thriller, Critics, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Cary Fukunaga, TV, Television


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.