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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.
Michelle Monaghan in "True Detective"
Michelle Monaghan in "True Detective"

Indeed, it may be the relative absence of place in Nussbaum's analysis that leads her to conflate the series' sexual politics with what she calls the "premium baloney" of Cohle's running commentary. On closer examination, the title sequence reveals not a simple story of heroic men and naked women, as Nussbaum suggests, but an iconography of the land that time forgot: sputtering refineries, derelict churches, overgrown bayous, and run-down houses recognizable to anyone who has lived or worked in this particular tropic. If we are to take the opening credits as an indication of what "True Detective" is "about," it is as much about the invisible, idiosyncratic South(s) that folks from New York and Los Angeles call "flyover country" as it is sex, or misogyny, or murder.

This is the land of willful eccentricity that produced Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, and it is the latter's grim, ruinous rambles that provide "True Detective" its most consistent referent. "Tell about the South," Mississippi's Quentin Compson says in "Absalom, Absalom!," repeating Northerners' irksome questions. "What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." To call "True Detective" "shallow" is to misapprehend its steadfast Southernness, the deepest of deep roots.

Pizzolatto does himself few favors by littering the tale with Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and "The Yellow King" -- as with "Lost," "True Detective" is in danger of taking its own cosmos so seriously that it prevents viewers from seeing the forest for the endlessly allusive trees -- but the real mark of the series is its Faulknerian fascination with the mechanics of storytelling. The only thing on which Hart and Cohle seem to agree is their compulsion to fashion a narrative.

"This has scope," Cohle says in reference to the paraphernalia attending the killings. "She articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical."

"You know the job," Marty relates. "You're lookin' for narrative. Interrogate witnesses, parcel evidence, establish a timeline, build a story, day after day."

"True Detective," marshaling all its intellectual resources to this point, might in fact be seen as a competition among the narratives -- supernatural and literary, religious and psychological, philosophical and pragmatic, historical and of-the-moment -- from which "the South" is made. Only it is a competition, six episodes in, without a clear winner. "True Detective" may yet reveal itself to be merely a shell game, all foreplay and no payoff, but thus far its attention to the (in)efficacy of narrative is ingenious, and altogether fitting. To tell about the South, as Quentin Compson understood, is to come up against the dense web of horrors that comprise the tale. Pizzolatto and Fukunaga's series, for all its acknowledged shortcomings, sounds these depths admirably: it is rich Southern Gothic for our premium-cable age.

"Nothin's ever over," Hart claims.

"The past is never dead," Faulkner wrote. "It's not even past."

"True Detective" airs Sundays at 9/8C on HBO.

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

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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.